Muck Fights, Immunity, Resilience, and JOY

 

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The Blue Hole                     Photo credit:  ME!!

I just returned from a long weekend in South Texas, where I grew up. Even though it was hot, with the temps reaching 95 every day, it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a really long time. For three mornings in a row, my cousin/sister, my dad, and I sat at the breakfast table over coffee and talked for three hours about whatever came to our minds. Afterward, we headed out to romp across the ranches in the Dry Frio Canyon that are littered with countless memories from my childhood.  We each agreed that the weekend felt like nothing short of an emotional and spiritual retreat.

One of my goals for my solo trip to Texas this time was to hit up the Blue Hole, a fabulous swimming spot on the ranch that my dad manages. This was one of my all-time favorite places to go during the summer – a small length of river ranging from 8 to 10 feet deep bordered by two great rocks for jumping. This section of the Dry Frio is always warmed by the August sun, but because of underground springs and a good current, the water only five feet under the surface is ice cold.

While the river was running full and clear this particular weekend, there have been plenty of times in the past when a Texas drought was in full swing and the current wouldn’t be running fast enough to keep the water clean.  During these times, the surface of the river would develop a growth of brown algae/moss. This slimy stuff would line the edges of the banks and coat the underwater rocks.  If my brother and our friends/family swam in the river during these times, we would stir up this algae with our antics, causing it to break loose and float around us and down the river.  We called this stuff:  muck.

Being good country kids who didn’t mind a little dirt and grime, we embraced this grossness and engaged in raucous muck fights.  A big clump of muck would float by, and we would each grab copious handfuls of it to fling at each other. We would feel quite satisfied if we managed to slam someone in the face with a fistful of muck just as they were coming up out of the water for air.  Looking back, muck fights were yucky and I’m no longer game for them (even though my cuz tried really hard to get me to play with the little globs of muck that were present this weekend).

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Dry Frio River, Uvalde County, TX

As my cousin and I reminisced about our childhood muck fight days, we waxed philosophical about how that nasty algae, and all the other stuff we got into as kids, probably helped us develop the robust immune systems we currently both enjoy.  She has only thrown up two or three times in her life (a fortune on her part that I consider a little unfair to the rest of us), we’ve never struggled with asthma, allergies, or similar issues, and other than the occasional cold, we’ve faired pretty well overall.

My cousin and I are certainly not the first people to theorize about this.  In a 2017 book, Jack Gilbert, professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Microbiome Center, wrote a book called Dirt is Good describing the positive effects of letting kids get dirty and become thoroughly acquainted with their environments. In an interview with the New York Times, he suggests that early childhood exposure to microscopic critters like bacteria helps shape not only our immunity but also the various processes influencing our hormones and nervous systems.

Scientists have postulated for years that our extreme aversion to dirt, grime, and anything unsanitary in the United States has actually been a factor contributing to the development of some disease.  We have done a good job of avoiding some horrible epidemics, thanks to our advances in hygiene and sterility, but in our overzealousness, especially for new parents, we often remove germs that are necessary to help boost immune function in our children.

“Studies have shown that priming or seeding of the microbiome in the child is absolutely critical,” said Marsha Wills-Karp, professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “While you don’t want to go out and expose your child to aggressive infections, you don’t want to create such a sterile environment that their immune system doesn’t develop normally; it puts them at risk of developing immune diseases.” (1)

So basically, a clean, perfect, safe environment is not always as good as what one would think for adapting well to life and the avoidance of disease.

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I can’t help but think that this same hygiene hypothesis applies to our spiritual lives and the process of building resilience. Our tendency is to try to make life as easy as possible, because…well….pain and hard circumstances hurt.  But what if the frantic maneuvering to shield ourselves from every hard thing really harming us in the long run, or is minimizing our ability to live the most abundant, meaningful life possible?

I was listening to a recent episode of the Rich Roll podcast, where Rich was interviewing medical doctor (and a billion other things) Zach Bush. In this discussion, Zach mentioned something that scared him: the US has not had a war on its soil in a VERY long time.  Say what?!  Why would that worry him?  Sounds a little messed up, eh?

His point in saying this was that he fears Americans have become too inoculated against the hard situations, need for frugality, and the general paradigm shifts about life that occur when the reality of war is in your face on a daily basis.  (I paraphrased his ideas here). Truth be told, we are groomed here to pursue comforts and luxury, endless choices, constant frigid air conditioning, the latest and greatest toys, etc. We lack a solid wisdom culture in our country’s young life to teach us that suffering is necessary to grow us and build resilience.

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If I’m completely truthful, it’s all the hard things in my past that have gotten me to where I am right now and have made life ultimately meaningful.  Every time I look back through memories and recall the things that I hated, wished I had done differently, or wished I’d avoided….in almost every case, an erasure of those events would have potentially dramatically altered my trajectory in life.

-I didn’t want to do all that public speaking for school events or play the piano every week for church services, but doing so over and over again made me so much less afraid of getting up in front of an audience.

-I wish I hadn’t gotten so depressed in college or struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, but now I have so much more empathy for others, and in some cases, can help show people a way out

-I wish I hadn’t walked away from a PhD program in a field I loved because I was afraid another marriage offer as a young adult wouldn’t come along….but doing so brought me three fabulous boys, some tremendous life experiences, and the knowledge that I could be really brave when the time came and I needed to be.

-If I hadn’t been such an eccentric child with a crazy bent for all things God and spirituality, I would have been saved alot of hurt for internalizing teachings that brought shame, guilt and fear for years….but  now I can relate to others whose theological scaffolding has also crumbled, who are trying to find a God they can once again believe in and follow.

And on, and on, and on.  I can recall hard thing after hard thing that was terrible at the time, but it made all the difference for who I am now. Those little hurts and pains, the slights and wrongs done against me, my massive failures….they created a resilience in me that wouldn’t have otherwise evolved.

*************************************************************************************This process of building resilience has changed the way I approach pain in life.  At one time, when I was young, I avoided emotional and mental pain whenever possible. I certainly already had enough in my life as a child that I didn’t want to seek out more.

As I grew older, in my twenties and early thirties, I began to see the wisdom of necessary suffering, how some things just won’t grow without a fertilizer of pain.  Still, it’s not like I sought it out.  Who would do such a thing, right?  Deliberately make their life harder?

Now, as a youngster pushing forty, I actually seek out difficult things, situations that I know will be uncomfortable and unpleasant.  But my perspective is completely different.  I don’t seek out suffering simply for the sake of suffering.  I have to interject a thought by John Piper here.  I know, I know, you’re pulling yourself up off the ground, entirely shocked that I would quote him.  Way back in college, I was on a big John Piper kick with his Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist book.

Here’s the central verse that his book is based on, making the point that it is OK to be motivated by what lies ahead in the future:

[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Now, I certainly don’t agree with all of Piper’s theology, but I love this principle theme.  Jesus did things because of the joy he ultimately knew it would bring him, and I believe that is just as valid a reason for how we should pursue our own lives.

“It is not unbiblical, therefore, to say that at least part of what sustained Christ in the dark hours of Gethsemane was the hope of joy beyond the cross. ” – John Piper

I do hard things and even set myself up for failure at times, not just because I know it builds resilience and makes me stronger, but because of JOY.  Jesus knew that the pain of the cross wouldn’t last forever. I, too, am being taught by life that my own pain and suffering won’t last forever.  It will eventually pass, and if it has been weathered well through hope and faith that the universe is benevolent, joy will remain.

While I can’t speak for everyone, I have found this to be true.  I have more joy in life now than I ever did when things were “easy”. In fact, I regularly have a deep welling up of giddiness inside me that can’t be explained rationally.  Much more than a superficial happiness that everything is just peachy, I think it comes from the same knowing that Jesus had, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (2)

 

(1) Klass, P. (2017, April 17). Too Clean for Our Children’s Good? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/well/family/too-clean-for-our-childrens-good.html

(2) Julian of Norwich

 

 

 

 

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