Saturday, December 20, 2008


I use a lot less soap than most people. I also think I'm pretty free from superstition. There's this whole psychological twist that goes into washing and cleanliness that equates power with quantity or volume, and crowds out consideration of precision.

Soap is not some magic dirt-erasing potion. I've seen people dip their hands, or their dishes, in soapy water and immediately rinse them off. A few even say they killed germs by doing so. Hogwash. Soap does one thing and one thing only: it lets the water wash off any oily dirt that's on the hand or the dish. Ordinarily, rinsing with water does nothing to greasy, oily dirt, because water and oil repel one another. But soap molecules have a hydrophilic "end" that attaches to water, and a hydrophobic "end" that attaches to oil, so soap is effectively a trailer hitch that lets the water haul the oil away. Mechanical scrubbing action is still necessary.

Imagine you wanted to paint a room: would you dip the brush in paint, just touch it to the wall, and expect the entire wall to magically turn that color, and be perfectly even and flawless? Not unless you're wobbly in the head. You'd have to go to the effort to apply the paint, smooth it over, give it a second coat, etc. The mechanical action matters. Really, when it comes to removing dirt, the mechanical action matters more than the soap does. You can take most dirt off with scrubbing, because the abrasion is violent enough to dislodge even greasy dirt. You may take your top layer of skin off with it, but you're always doing that anyway, little by little. A good, vigorous scrubbing just speeds it up a bit.

So all I've really argued to this point is that soap doesn't accomplish much all by itself. That doesn't explain why I use less of it. There have been a number of product tests done over the years to find out how clean laundry gets with a lot of detergent, a little detergent, and no detergent at all. The results show that it doesn't make that much of a difference: agitate clothes through water, especially warm or hot water, and that's the biggest part of getting them clean. Having read those reports several times, I cut way down on my detergent use a few years back. For whites or unmentionables, I wash in hot water and use a fair amount of detergent, but for clothes that don't get that dirty (pants, outer shirts) I use cold water and about a tablespoon or two of liquid detergent. And every once in a while, if I run out of laundry soap and haven't remembered to pick it up, I go ahead and run loads for a couple of weeks without adding anything to them.

None of this is the slightest bit interesting, even to me. But the widespread practice of piling on the soap, or imagining that it has "cleaning magic," is a symptom of a deeper rational kink. We do the same thing with over-the-counter medication, with nutritional supplements, and sometimes with particular relational practices: "Let's sit down and have a serious talk about this." It feels good to pour on the power, instead of carefully surveying the situation from all sides and choosing a response that's finely calibrated to it. It reminds me of people who pass me on the street at blazing speed, weaving in and out of traffic, and then when I reach a red light, they're right beside me. They sure had fun flooring that gas pedal, but it didn't get them any real advantage.

And sometimes I think we misunderstand God in that way. True, He's got all the power anyone can imagine, and scripture lays out a couple of circumstances where He put on a display that would reduce any human being to slack-jawed awe. But it's meaningless to talk about His power as a maximum, as a bludgeon, for two reasons: first, there's no maximum to it, and second, a corollary of the first,
it goes way beyond the limits of our understanding. What I do more and more is think of God's power as precision; not as soap dumped on dirt, in hopes that the soap will operate like some cartoonish Clean Paint, but as meticulous and loving attention, wiping, scrubbing, polishing, applied to every nook and crevice of what needs cleaning. Not too much pressure, but not too little; no streaks, no scratches, no spills, no missed spots. I think of God's justice not as the kind of punishment that makes an atom bomb look like a love-pat, but rather as the most perfectly scaled, perfectly balanced, perfectly just consequence for the offense: breathtaking in its match, not in its immensity. God can go fingerprint-specific, atom-specific, quark-specific, and beyond, unlike we humans, who can only roughly match what we do to what we perceive.

That's a quality I'm quite convinced God has, and I find it far more awe-inspiring than thinking expansively about His power. I also think it's a useful starting point for thinking about problems. We have expressions like "swatting a mosquito with a bazooka" that allude to the error of excessively blunt response, but they're hardly everyday wisdom. I suspect it might be an artifact of our culture: we have
so much power, from our military to our wealth (shaky at the moment) to our institutions to our ideas, that an impatient application of overwhelming force, a little Powell doctrine, seems appealing to us. People in other parts of the world learn more of a respect for subtlety and nuance. But anyway, I find myself more and more absorbed with wiggling the slightly warped key in the lock until I can get it to turn, rather than kicking the stubborn door out of its frame. And I save a good deal of money on soap.

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