“Sue” was a woman I used to know. Unattractive mole-like bumps grew all over her face making her very unattractive, and I wanted to look away when she talked to me.
It was not a mature reaction on my part. Visceral and primitive, yes. Mature, no.
What I was experiencing was the psychological phenomenon of disgust. Richard Beck, Abilene Christian University psychologist calls disgust a boundary psychology, originally designed to protect people from noxious foods and such.
But disgust becomes problematic when it enters the world of human relationships because it walls us off from charming and wonderful people.
Marine Cpl. Ronny Porta was severely burned in May 2007 in Al Asad, Iraq, when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device. Porta was burned over 35% of his body. He had to have his right arm amputated and suffered facial disfigurement, the loss of his nose, damage to ears and eye sockets, and loss of fingers on his left hand.
In a USA Today article, Porta talked about how uncomfortable it is to be in public. “The way they look at me was like if I have a disease or something that could be contagious,” Porta says.
What Porta experiences is disgust at its worst. So also, “Sue” or anyone else who looks different and causes others to turn away.
Beck writes that people are often surprised about how much disgust affects the human, relational experience. One Iraq burn Vet talked recently about the terribly rude things that were said to him, things that would not have been said to someone whose appearance was “normal.”
Jesus refused to allow disgust to govern his relationships. He ate with outcasts of his society, and he touched lepers.
Most importantly, Jesus told his critics, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Matthew 9:13. In other words, treating people with compassion and kindness was a much higher value to Jesus than religious ritual.
Even though I wanted to turn my face from Sue’s I didn’t. I wish it was because I didn’t “see” the bumps. But I can’t claim that sort of nobility.
In spite of my inclinations I discovered she was a charming, intelligent person with a great deal of wit. I can see why her husband married her. I also understand why Jesus said that mercy is the antidote to disgust.
Mercy is the only way that humans can override our tendency toward rejection and disgust.
To read more on this subject I recommend Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality by Richard Beck, copyright 2011.