Friday, August 29, 2014

Clutter or Grime?

       In a couple of days, over a thousand new students (and their parents) will descend upon the University of Denver for the first time (not counting campus visits).  They will unload trucks, trailers and cars and, with the help of numerous volunteers, cart the students' belongings to their new campus residence.  Most of them will meet their roommate(s) for the first time.  Perhaps they've communicated in advance ("I'll bring the TV; you bring the Wii!"  "Dude, let's decorate in green and purple polkadots!"), perhaps not.  They may have decided which side of the room each student will inhabit.  And I know that on many campuses, the roommate selection process requires a pretty sophisticated computer algorithm (I don't know if DU does that).  I have to wonder, however, if the students (or the computer) really gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter?
       I managed a student residence for eleven years (I may have mentioned this before). One of the things that became very clear to me as I listened to floor-mates complain about their neighbors was that there was a big difference between "clutter" people and "grime" people. Some folks believe a space is clean when it is clutter-free; all the surfaces are clear, and everything is in its place. Others don't care so much about the clutter as they do about the dustthat may be hidden behind books on a bookshelf, or the grime on the baseboard behind the oven.  In short, "clean" meant different things to different floor-mates and, when it came to common kitchens and bathrooms, these differences became LARGE.  
(This realization has informed a lot of my pre-marital counseling as well!)
       The flip-side, of course, is true as well.  What one person considers trash (or dirt) is anobjet d'art to someone else.  The matter, or item, under consideration is not the point; particle of dust are particles of dust.  What matters is the meaning, or import, attributed to them.  As the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out, "Dirt is matter out of place".*  She goes on to describe how/why certain "matter" is defined as "dirt" by various cultures.  I've always found it a fascinating analysis, and one, as I've suggested, that has usefulness in many different contexts.  Certainly one context is the potential disagreement (and perhaps fruitful late-night conversation) among room-mates about how THEY came to hold their particular views on what a "clean room" implies.
       But, as I read/hear the news from around the world, I see a different set of contexts where Douglas' insights might be applied.  Whether they're the various conflicts in the Middle East or, more nearby, race-related violence in the urban areas of our country, one of the root causes (it seems to me) is that we've been taught (WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT)! that there are fundamental and, thereby, worrisome differences between various groups of people -- whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.  We choose to perpetuate these distinctions despite the best evidence from multiple disciplines.  We have "stuff" invested in maintaining these artificial and dangerous categories, and then we resort to "any means necessary" to eliminate those we deem "dirt".  And people suffer.  And, I believe, God weeps.
       My prayer for these incoming students is that they learn from one another that a candy-wrapper on the floor is just a candy-wrapper.  They may differ in how they regard that candy wrapper -- and that difference should be a point-of-departure for some great conversations.  If they can internalize THAT, then maybe they can bring some greater level of hope and understanding to a hurting world dealing with much larger problems than a messy (?) dorm room.

Chaplain Gary

*From her 1966 book, Purity and Danger.

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