How Important Is Cleanliness?

CLEANLINESS means different things to different people. For instance, when a little boy is told by his mother to wash his hands and face, he may think that holding his fingers under a running faucet and wetting his lips is enough. But Mother knows better. She takes him back into the bathroom and scrubs his hands and face with plenty of soap and water—despite his loud protests!

Of course, standards of cleanliness are not the same around the world, and people grow up with varying concepts of cleanliness. In times past, a clean, well-ordered school environment in many countries helped students develop good habits of cleanliness. Today, some school grounds are so full of litter and debris that they resemble a garbage dump more than a place to play or exercise. And what about the classroom? Darren, a janitor in an Australian high school, observed: “Now we see filth in the classroom as well.” Some students take the instruction “Pick it up” or “Clean it up” to mean that they are being punished. The problem is that some teachers do use cleaning as a means of punishment.

On the other hand, adults are not always good examples of cleanliness, either in everyday life or in the business world. For example, many public places are left messy and unsightly. Some industries pollute the environment. Pollution, however, is caused, not by faceless industries and businesses, but by people. While greed is probably the main cause of the worldwide problem of pollution and its many ill effects, part of the problem is the result of unclean personal habits. A former director general of the Commonwealth of Australia supported this conclusion when he said: “All questions of public health reduce themselves to a consideration of the one man, the one woman, the one child.”

Still, some feel that cleanliness is a personal matter and should be of no concern to anyone else. Is that really so?

The importance of cleanliness cannot be overemphasized when it comes to our food—whether we buy it at a market, eat it at a restaurant, or have a meal at a friend’s home. A high standard of cleanliness is expected of those handling or serving the food we eat. Dirty hands—theirs or ours—can be the cause of many sicknesses. What about hospitals—of all places, the place where we expect to find cleanliness? The New England Journal of Medicine reported that unwashed hands among doctors and nurses may help explain why hospital patients develop infections that cost up to ten billion dollars a year to cure. We rightly expect that no one will endanger our health by his unclean habits.

It is also a very serious matter when someone—deliberately or thoughtlessly—pollutes our water supplies. And how safe is it to stroll barefoot along a beach where one may see used syringes left behind by drug addicts and others? Perhaps of even greater personal importance is the question: Is cleanliness practiced in our own home?

Suellen Hoy, in her book Chasing Dirt, asks: “Are we as clean as we used to be?” She answers: “Probably not.” She cites shifting social values as the main reason. As people spend less and less time at home, they simply pay someone else to do the cleaning for them. Consequently, maintaining a clean environment is no longer a matter of personal importance. “I don’t clean the shower—I clean myself,” said one man. “At least, if my house is dirty, I’m clean.”

Cleanliness, however, is much more than outward appearance. It is an all-embracing ethic of sound living. It is also a state of mind and heart that involves our morals and worship. Let us see how this is the case.