The danger of safety

I was reading research today suggesting that one of the chemicals in anti-bacterial soaps may interact with the chlorine in tap water to create carcinogenic chloroform. I thought of how anti-bacterial soaps are already problematic, because they may encourage the evolution of stronger, harder to fight bacteria–the sort that have survived the anti-bacterial soaps, and so are resistant to them.

And my mind made this leap to wildfire management policies. For many years, we tried to stop all fires, because it was completely counterintuitive that we might want to let small fires burn. That we needed to let small fires burn, because otherwise the forest became overgrown–became where larger, harder to control fires are likely to burn instead.

I’ve watched the mountains in my backyard burn, because we’d tried too hard to protect them.

With bacteria, too, it seems we may need to let ourselves be exposed to the mild stuff–the stuff we have defenses against, or else the stuff we don’t have defenses against will find us instead. There’s some evidence that childhood asthma and allergies may be the result of defending ourselves too hard, too–that the immune system, denied anything real to attack, becomes twitchy and bored, and attacks other things instead.

It’s almost as if the universe is trying to tell us that if we protect ourselves too much, we only put ourselves in greater danger instead. That we need to learn to endure the small things, to bend instead of break, or else the bigger things will find us. We can’t hide behind walls, because walls only invite things capable of breaking walls down, and the people behind them, too.

The world is fraught with peril, and much of American culture seems to be about staying safe, staying protected, staying behind those walls. We do it without thinking, half the time.

But it doesn’t work. If we don’t learn to weather the small fires, the large ones find us instead.

Sometimes the large fires find us no matter what we do. But even then, maybe if we’ve spent time coping with the small fires, we’ll have developed some skill, some technique, some clue that will at least give us a fighting chance against the big stuff, too.

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