My son gently placed a booger in my hand at the zoo the other day, and I thanked him. On the way to the trash can, he analyzed the size, shape, and viscosity. I nodded in agreement. We were examining his ecosystem.
When did this happen? When did I cross over to the other side of gross? How did I lose the “ick” factor?
I’ve never been squeamish. Cuts don’t bother me. I’ve never fainted at the sight of blood. I’m no Victorian lady in my Chacos and hefty spritz of dry shampoo.
Other people’s public displays of bodily functions might trigger an eye roll (I mean, keep it to yourselves, people), but they didn’t lead to outright disgust. Do I want to swan dive into another person’s belches and snot? Well, no. Does my stomach turn at the sight of unidentifiable puddles on a crowded city sidewalk? Of course. I’m still human after all, or I used to be.
So, if none of this bothers me now, none of the thousands of boogers wiped on my pant leg or blowout diapers in my lap or sour spit up down my shirt or vomit in my eye (true story), then am I even still human? When I had children and lost my “yuck face,” did I lose my humanity too? Daniel Kelly, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University and author of the book, “Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust,” would argue no. I’m simply evolving.
Despite the fact that most of us have, as Kelly puts it, “a base layer of core disgusting things, and a lot of them don’t seem like they’re learned,” we can still unlearn a great deal. Medical students do it all the time. You don’t see a seasoned professional retching over the sight of a severed thumb because by the time he gets to the real deal, he’s seen a million. He’s dissected cadavers and stitched up trauma patients until one bloody limb looks like any other. Just another day in the office. According to Kelly, “people don’t exactly know how this works, but acute exposure to something can have the effect of decreasing our feeling of disgust toward it.” Apparently, my kids have immunized me from the gag-reflex.
Disgust is a natural reaction, and evolutionarily necessary to keep us away from disease and tainted food. According to Kelly, it’s also why we make the “yuck face,” the scrunched-up “eww” face. It’s the danger sign to keep others away and safe from harm. I’ve stopped making that face three thousand dirty diapers ago (because I’m a genius and evolving at a greater rate than my spouse). I don’t want to keep people away from that. I want to lure them in, bring them into the mess and stink of it so they too might experience the joys of babyhood and, perhaps, if I’m lucky, change the next diaper.
You know that quick taste of bile you get in your throat when somebody vomits and you know that if you hang around any longer, you’ll be next? I lost that one too on another ill-fated trip home from the zoo when my three-year-old puked up all the contents of her stomach, including zoo hot dog, zoo applesauce, and zoo cookies. It was all over herself, her car seat, and, eventually, me. After that, I could watch the vomit-fest from the pie-eating competition in “Stand by Me” without so much as a pause. If, as Kelly puts it, “[d]isgust is a psychological component to this arsenal of protective weaponry,” then I’ve had a psychotic break. My armor has all the chinks in it. It’s the second-hand weaponry you’d pick up at Goodwill.
You know what? I’m okay with it. My lack of a “yuck face” has carried me through mountains of poo and snot and bloody noses and refluxed curdled milk. It has kept the family going despite itself. I consider it a progressive step forward to be able to deal with the not-so-niceties and move on, like a seasoned professional. Now that I’ve lost my “yuck face,” I can enjoy it all the more on others. You go ahead and fight down that wave of nausea. I’ll just carry this extra gooey booger to the trashcan and be on my way.