This comes from biology nerd Lex Booth.
Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.’ — Genesis 11:4
Life in college during the cold & flu season is like navigating a Petri dish. A roommate’s sneeze is enough to fill a house with the dread of an impending epidemic. When a classmate coughs nearby, there is no sympathy, just offense by such blatant irresponsibility: ‘How dare you? Don’t you know I have an interview next week?’ Parents of small children are equally familiar with this brand of anxiety, as one local minister reminded us recently.
The physical discomfort of your local bug is unpleasant, but being sick is far worse when it mercilessly postpones office projects and weekend plans– ‘and I had just started making good on my New Years’ Resolution at the gym…’ The Netflix binge is a good palliative, but that mountain of make-up work isn’t getting any smaller, is it Senator Underwood?
When an illness threatens our ability to exercise control, we do what we always do: hit the bottle… of Purell hand sanitizer. We adopt obsessive-compulsive hand-washing practices, vaccinate ourselves, buy an air filter and a Brita pitcher, do a juice cleanse, and overdose on Vitamin C (because I heard that helps). Our cult of sterility must look strangely superstitious on the outside: we pay homage to the gods of health so that they will not disrupt our various agendas – so that we can go on constructing our ‘tower to the heavens…’
Of course, taking (some of) these steps to avoid sickness benefits your neighbor as well as yourself, and we should feel free to use them as gifts. Thank God for vaccines, anti-bacterial soap, and most-of-all for life’s miracle-drug: Bono! Ibuprofen! What other discovery by modern medicine has helped so many people make it to work in spite of colds (or hangovers)? What else has helped us maintain more control over the feverish and painful parts of life than popping an Advil or four? Maybe pharmacology is becoming our culture’s newest Tower of Babel, a promised utopia where every human problem can be solved with a pill, or at least the hope for one. (If you think I’m exaggerating, guess again…)
Originally proposed in 1989, the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ suggests that our aversion to sickness might be coming back to bite us in the behind. The theory goes that sanitation, vaccination, and smaller household numbers have decreased the amount and variety of pathogens we encounter, which sounds nice. But on the opposite side of that coin, our immune systems spend less time defending us against bad stuff like parasites and more time annoying and harming us with allergic reactions and auto-immune diseases.
While I won’t comment on the recent evidence supporting this phenomenon (fellow biology nerds, enjoy), the idea is itself unsettling. Perhaps it is true that our efforts to avoid sickness are making us sicker. Perhaps our most basic vision of freedom and security is just as distorted as Babel’s tower. In spite of these illusions of control, there is hope for our world of germaphobic multi-vitamin addicts because the real god of health has come to erect his better picture of freedom where our own monuments stand. This reckless God of the Cross has come to give us the hope of health in sickness and life in death, and so he dared to ‘reach out his hand and touch the man’ (Luke 5:13).