I am the father of a preschooler. Prior to that I was a cat owner. Long story short, for nearly every day of the Obama administration I have had to deal directly with another organism’s poop. This is not difficult for me. But then, I’m a biologist. We enjoy lots of things that others would find gross: slimy critters, gory anatomy, rotting compost. Biology is the study of the disgusting. But biologists don’t have some special innate ability to tolerate the messiness of life. Indeed, I gag easily, and those routine scatological tasks would have been almost impossible for me in earlier years. I retched my way through middle school dissections of chickens with full and fetid colons. But I have mastered my feelings of disgust. That’s not just a task for biologists. It would be good for all of us to work on it.
Our society has an odd relationship with the emotion of disgust. Compare it to fear, for example. We all agree fear is bad. We all agree that control over fear, known as “courage”, is admirable. We all agree that making decisions out of fear, called cowardice, is shameful. But what about disgust? Announcing your disgust with something is often seen as a moral virtue, a sign of social refinement. Control over disgust, known as “stomach”, is occasionally praised but doesn’t get nearly the good press that courage does. In fact, folks who are comfortable around disgusting things are seen as creepy, not heroic.
All of this makes sense given the adaptive role of disgust. As Inside Out so eloquently puts it, disgust keeps us from getting poisoned both physically and socially. We evolved to feel queasy around things that could make us sick. These could be inanimate objects full of bacteria and parasites, like smelly dung heaps or carrion. Or they could be other humans whom we suspect are germy themselves. And this produces a positive feedback loop. You’d better be squeamish around that filth or else everyone else will be disgusted with you.
Thus we are left with an overactive sense of disgust that, in our highly sanitized society, does more harm than good. There is no way that someone else’s sex life is going to make you sick, yet people’s disgust with homosexuality and gender fluidity is so strong that it drives government policies. You won’t get sick from vaccines or genetically modified food, yet disgust is so overwhelming that people convince themselves otherwise and fight against these benign technologies. Revolted voters take arms against a sea of harmless enemies, from foreign cultures to local wildlife, all based on an irrational emotion. This has to stop. We need to find our stomach.
Courage is control over fear, but the opposite of fear is hope. So what’s the opposite of disgust? It’s awe. Imagine turning over a decaying log and uncovering a writhing community of millipedes, salamanders, ants, and grubs. You could recoil in revulsion. But instead, what if you tried just being amazed? That beautiful, intricate corner of the biosphere is complex beyond our comprehension. Life is so much better if we can react, and move forward, in awe.
So with that, here’s a brief guide to handling your disgust. We can all use the practice.
It’s okay to feel disgusted. But don’t let your disgust control you. If something makes you nauseous, you don’t need to put it in your mouth. But that doesn’t mean you need to destroy it.
Do one thing every day that disgusts you. What this is will vary widely. It might be taking a few seconds to admire a toad you encounter. It might be greeting a foul-smelling homeless person with warmth and respect. It might be telling your spouse that you’ll take care of the dirty diapers tonight.
Never make political or moral decisions based on disgust. You have a rational mind, so use it. “It’s disgusting” is never a good enough reason to ban something. Maybe it really will put us at risk for disease, but that’s something we can evaluate using reason, not just feelings.
Say “Wow!” when you want to say “Ew!” Whether you are watching a nature documentary, learning about how people in another country eat, or removing a tick from your dog. The world is actually much more astounding than it is infectious.
Try to have stomach. If you don’t have stomach, pretend to. No one can tell the difference.