Pollution & Purity

Pollution & Purity

“Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
Humans are amazingly good at identifying the in-groups and out-groups to which  they belong or do not belong. We are also capable of incredible acts of in-group kindness and generosity as well as out-group nastiness and unfairness. I think that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books can be read as an example of our incredibly powerful in-group versus out-group nature, and within those stories we can also see how purity and pollution play a role in how we understand our in-groups relative to our out-groups.
 
 
In the books, an evil and powerful wizard, the son of a magical witch and non-magical (muggle) man, attempts to rule the world on the premise that magical individuals are inherently superior than non-magical individuals. Purebloods, those whose family line is entirely magical rather than half-bloods or mud-bloods, those whose family line includes muggles or is entirely muggle, are seen as superior and more valuable. Mud-bloods and half-bloods are viewed by the evil wizard and his supporters (and tacitly accepted by many characters) as somehow polluted, or at best diluted. That becomes the basis for out-group hostilities, biases, discrimination, and general nastiness.
 
 
Harry Potter may be a fiction, but the books reflect real world struggles that do take place between arbitrary groups and real world discrimination that occurs based on appearance, social class, talent and skill, religion, and other factors. The United States was founded as a country that discriminated against black people because of the color of their skin and their seemingly savage or backward tribal lifestyles in Africa (and also because white plantation owners stood to benefit from the free labor and exploitation of captured Africans). People born with mixed race parents were called mulatto, and were quite literally seen as less pure than people born to white parents. Ability, skill, and intelligence did not differ in a material way between black slaves and white slaveowners, but in-group and out-group dynamics founded a country based on an imagined hierarchy and real world discrimination between white and black people – a hierarchy and system of discrimination that was legally upheld and perpetuated long after slavery ended.
 
 
Other countries have had similar challenges. In India, a caste system was built almost entirely on ideas of purity. A certain segment of the population was referred to (and still is  to some extent) as “untouchables” for fear of contamination. This group was (and still is) isolated and outcast within the larger society and the results of the discrimination shown to such people has later been use to justify the unequal treatment they receive.
 
 
In some ways fears of pollution and desires for purity are rooted in biology. Pigs can carry dangerous parasites that can infect humans. For early Jews – before sanitary cooking methods were developed, dietary restrictions possibly helped ensure there was less parasite and disease transmission. Isolating sick individuals, people with sores, or people who were hired or charged with handling dead bodies, possibly helped reduce disease transmission among early humans. However, from these reasonable precautions came the biases, fears, and unjust discrimination which became part of our in-group and out-group dynamics and ultimately contributed to the ideas of pure ruling classes and polluted lower classes. Something that was biologically prudent took on a narrative that was exploited and abused over time for political ends.
 
 
When we sense ourselves being fearful of ideas of pollution, whether it is genetic, racial, sanitary, or other forms of pollution, we should try to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. We should try to recognize if we are simply acting out in-group versus out-group biases and prejudices, or if we do have real health and sanitary concerns. If the latter is the case, we should find ways to uphold health and safety while minimizing and reducing bias and discrimination as much as possible.

Present in Mind and Body

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.

 

I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.

 

Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.

 

Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.