We are one organism. A single human body for our species, for our country, for our village, for our tribe, for our family; for all of the ways in which we exist together. Our human existence is collective, communal and relational, as well as individual and singular.
Disgust serves a function, as does guilt and shame, for the organism.
Disgust warns us off that which is corrupted and rotten. When it comes to food and produce, the disgust is understood as having an important evolutionary function for our safety. But when it’s a reaction to human behaviour, the disgust is judged as being rude or negative or judgemental.
But the emotional disgust serves a purpose for the organism – it’s the instinctive (meaning both knee jerk, and also of the unconscious automatic functioning of the body) way of signalling the presence of that which is harmful for the organism.
It has the potential to create separation, a rupture, by forcibly distancing the object of the disgust (that is, the person who’s behaviour is intolerable in some way) from the group. But that’s temporary, and partial.
It’s a bitter medicine that is needed for all the members of a community – all the individual beings that make up the whole – to know and understand when their behaviour is hurting the whole.
We need it when needlessly destructive or cruel impulses are acted on. We need it when individuals overpower or coerce or intimidate other people. We need it when actions that are atrocious happen.
We need it – it’s needed now.
The effect of disgust in the object is, if they aren’t (through reasons of biology or upbringing) incapable of feeling it, shame.
For those who are incapable of feeling it, the distancing action, the loss of respect and amity is a more direct and clearer cut lesson in cause and effect, of consequences.
The shame and guilt felt is an internal system of guidance. It helps the shamed person understand that they are of consequence in the community, that they have the power to impact on others, and that the behaviour in question was harmful.
Shame/guilt is thus a sobering feeling and force that has the purpose of emotionally making people accountable for their own actions.
We need it – it’s needed now.
That’s all a description of and plea for healthy disgust, guilt and shame.
But as most of us know, we live in a world that’s deeply saturated with unhealthy and distorted versions of those.
Whether through religious moralising, or social/cultural norms, or human unconsciousness, or even human cruelty, so much of the disgust, guilt and shame that’s present and felt in the world is of the unhealthy kind.
Let’s look at some of the things that have become the objects of distorted disgust and shaming, both now and recently:
- same-sex love and sex
- sex outside of marriage
- inter-racial relationships
- expressions of gender that defy norms (women wearing trousers, gosh!)
- someone being ill or needing care and being a ‘burden’ on their family and society
- homelessness and homeless people
And so on.
The disgust that is felt and expressed by individuals by such things is not healthy, honest or even what I’d call ‘real’ disgust. It represents and comes from a break in empathy, a rupturing in the social fabric that binds us all together.
It’s a disgust that intends to tear, rather than to mend.
(it still has the message of signalling about something that’s ‘unacceptable’ – but in this case it comes from a taught place of moralising, rather than an instinctive reaction to that which is hurtful to others)
On the other side, let’s look at some things which I hope we can all agree should invoke disgust:
- physical assault
- sexual assault
- emotional violence
- abuse of justice
- mistreatment of children
- mistreatment of animals
and so on.
Because there’s so much unhealthy disgust and shame (the shame that we feel about having sexual urges, or of not having the careers of our dreams, or having finite energy and needing to let people down sometimes, of making mistakes, etc) that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and have decided that disgust, shame and guilt are wholly bad.
They aren’t bad; no emotion or feeling is inherently bad. All emotions and feelings have the capability to nourish life and ourselves and others or of being used against someone. Even happiness can be weaponised when used to negate a person’s experiences or full expression. (If happiness being used against someone sounds impossible, imagine if you were recently bereaved, and you were obliged to host a children’s birthday, with clowns and entertainers – wouldn’t you feel an additional layer of distress to be around so much happiness, both staged and genuine? Wouldn’t the dissonance between your own feelings and the those of the children and entertainers be very harsh for you?)
Another way that shame, disgust and guilt seem ‘bad’ to us is with the idea that love is the desirable feeling state, that negative feelings constitute a lack of love, and that they must eventually give way to love.
Perhaps all of that is so, but here’s the thing:
The love that is supreme is not a feeling that sits side by side with other feelings, that can be displaced or eclipsed by negative feelings or positive feelings.
It is the foundational state and reality.
It is the canvas upon which the colours of happiness and sadness and anger and fear and disgust and shame and gratitude and suspicion and guilt and excitement and all of the other shades and nuance of feeling and emotion are painted.
Love is the vastness and the infinite, the horizon and vista that holds and swaddles and enfolds and nurtures and gives space to all of the swirls and patterns and dots and stars and clouds and breezes and sunshines and nighttimes of mood and reaction and response, of feeling and emotion.
Aiming for love, or choosing love, or choosing to live by love, or choosing to feel love (or however it is that you word your conscious choice making with regards to feeling) is not to wipe clean the canvas of feeling and emotion. It isn’t to negate or deny or cleanse or absolve or distance or reduce or mitigate or uplift or purify or transform or release the colours of your moments and days.
Letting love be your reality (which, if I’m really nitpicky, means to let reality be itself) means to recognise the holding, to have awareness of the tapestry, even if it’s coloured over with your colours (and even if many of those colours are quite bleak to your eye and discernment).
It doesn’t mean to take a scraper to the canvas and peel or scrape or plane away the layers of emotion and feeling that you might deem to be negative or problematic, or in any way less than love,
Nor does it mean to white wash over all feelings other than love (or maybe love and the other ‘good’ feelings like happiness, joy and gratitude),
It means to be love, to be the embrace; to love and welcome all the variations and visitations of life, and to recognise all manifestations of feeling and life force and emotion and consciousness as life.
Disgust and shame and guilt are not pariahs in the kingdom of god. They may be difficult feelings to experience or witness or process, but they’re no less worthy for that, no less made of the fabric of existence (which, as all us love peddlers know, is love) than the happier feeling states.
Let us practice gladness and welcome, for the hoot owl and raven as much as for the dove and hummingbird.
Let us reclaim our sacred instinctive states and the self-regulatory feedback loops of our greater body from the maw of broken humanity.