To borrow a little theological language, I was born into germophobia. My childhood was full of scrubbing my hands soapily under the faucet. When someone sneezed in elementary school, I would hold my breath. Touching shared objects—doorknobs, desks, faucets—was to be avoided at all costs, if you were to ask eleven year-old Lydia. If a friend shared my meal, my stomach would tie into such tight knots that I would say “why don’t you just finish this dessert? I can’t eat any more.” I remember my mom—a doctor—trying to alleviate my fears by assuring me that even when I washed my hands until they bled that I was still covered in good and bad germs. “You don’t understand, Mom,” I would tell her, “they FEEL dirty.” And that’s exactly what my germophobia was: a feeling. If I shook someone’s hand at church, my hand felt dirty for hours. Pretty much fearing germs has been a part of my realty for as long as I could remember.
While at Calvin, I took a microbiology class which—surprise, surprise—dramatically worsened my fear of germs. Normal things, like planting seeds in dirt, became me touching anthrax. Eating honey on a waffle (from Commons, obviously) became a risky game of will-she-or-won’t-she get botulism. I was grateful to the Broene Counseling Center for helping me slowly tackle these fears, although, as any germaphobe or hypochondriac will tell you, the sniggling little voice in the back of your head suggesting “maybe this will get you sick…” never fully shuts up, she just quiets down.
People were always surprised when I told them I went to dental school after Calvin, frequently and sanctimoniously informing me that the mouth is the dirtiest part of the human body. The truth is while the human mouth is dirty, I feel safe when I am covered in PPE (that’s personal protective equipment for anybody in a non-healthcare field). Wearing a surgical mask, covering my hair with a lunch-lady-esque hair net, donning a gown that went from neck to ankles, strapping on my stylish dental goggles, and slipping on my clinic shoes made me feel safe. I joked with my friends that if I could, I would wear all that protective gear on the street. “A hazmat suit might be cheaper,” someone told me once.
Pre-2020, wearing a mask to an American grocery store would be… well, odd. As was avoiding touching doorknobs or squirming away from shaking hands; I had long since learned that my desire to avoid germs was something I needed to hide because people never understood it. In the Hekman library, I once asked someone to vampire sneeze instead of into his hands. He looked at me as if I had two heads. This was the norm; if I expressed my true feelings about filthy germs, other people were baffled. So, like most people with both paranoias and friends, I learned to hide my behavior, turn it into a joke, or pivot to a tangential subject. It’s amazing how fear of ostracism usurps all other fears, as humans are social above all else.
And yet here we are, some umpteen weeks into a global pandemic and a semi-national lock-down. I blend in at the store with a mask and Clorox wipes as I wipe down my cart and everything that goes into my cart. My salesclerk wears gloves and does not give it a second thought when I disinfect my debit card as she returns it to me. Don’t get me wrong, the news is horrifying: hundreds of thousands dead, millions (many unknowingly) infected and contagious, people grappling with newfound loneliness and anxiety. I understand the evils of this pandemic, and I feel the pain that no six-foot conversation can ameliorate. However, I think some good can come out of this. God is working for the good of all things, right?
I am hoping in the newuncertainnormaltimes that we live in, people will be more cautious about what they spread and intentional about what they do with their time. I hope that people with colds wear masks to protect strangers. I hope we realize the difficulties of loneliness and reach out to people trapped in hospital beds or in the throes of depression. I hope that when we can hug our friends and gather at parties, we recognize the specialness of the moment. I hope that we minimize unnecessary trips to the grocery store but maximize shared mealtimes. I hope that we engineer our world so that we can be together safely to spread ideas and love, instead of viral particles. I hope that washing our hands becomes like an hourly act of service or prayer. But I also hope that people like me, with a deep fear of germs, are not seen as oddballs. I hope we all become a little more germaphobic and a little more gracious towards each other.