When Disgust Was a Virtue

This morning a man came to mind who I worked with many years ago in the computer industry. I never liked him, and he was not easy to like. In fact by the time we parted ways, I had grown to despise him and deeply resent his constant verbal abuse and mistreatment, which happened on many levels over a long period of time.

What dawned on me today was that I had never forgiven him. But what intrigued me the most about this was the fact that I had never even considered forgiving him. It wasn't as if I had been opposed to forgiving; it had just never come up for a vote. So I had to ask God, "Why was that? Why did I consider him so expendable that I never even thought of forgiving him?" It was as if I had emotionally kicked him to the curb and moved on.

OK, at this point, it was starting to get unpleasant. I was not liking what I was seeing in myself. So I prayed Psalm 139, "Search me O God and know my heart" — because I have learned that getting this stuff out of me is more important than trying to hide it from myself. What came up quickly filled several pages of my journal. But the heart of the matter was this:

I had learned a long time ago from my family how to use disgust to distance myself from another person. Growing up I was faced quite often with disgust from several family members. They seemed to have an internal "disgust meter" that ran from minus 10 (total disgust) to plus ten (total approval), and nearly everything they encountered in life got measured by that meter. That may well have been their primary means of determining the value of something. And the use of that meter was expressed like a virtue — the more disgust they felt, the better they felt about not having anything to do with whatever it was they were condemning. What they never acknowledged, of course, was that they were trying desperately to distance themselves from their own self-disgust (which was deeply ingrained). Feeling disgust about everything else made them feel better about themselves. 

The problem for me was, no matter how horrible I thought their process was, I was unable to keep myself from internalizing that same method for evaluating things. Knowing that at any time I could be their next target of disgust, I had to take their potential responses into account every time I considered doing or saying anything. Furthermore, whenever I would express approval for something or someone, only to discover that they were disgusted by that same thing, they would make it very clear how disgusted they were with me for not figuring out disgusting something was! It was all very insidious. I had to learn how to express disgust in order to survive.

So here I am, several decades later, finding it hard to forgive someone because he failed my disgust meter. He wasn't worth considering, let alone forgiving. Thankfully, I had enough time today to spend with God and to allow Him to begin cleansing me of my disgust meter. I felt a ton lighter afterward, and grateful for Him bringing to mind this problem.

As I reflect on this whole issue, it occurs to me that expressing disgust has become a national pastime. For entertainment, we watch Simon Cowell disabuse contestants on a show, or wait to hear a judge hit the buzzer to express their disdain. We publish annual Darwin Awards for idiots who help "purge the gene pool" by their foolishness, and watch reports on "stupid criminals" to see how dumb they are. I can't help but wonder, "What is everyone trying to distance themselves from, that they need to express all this disgust for other people?"

But for now, it is enough to know that in families such as mine where self-hate gets passed down from one generation to another, disgust can often be mistakenly elevated to the status of a virtue. However, the truth is that this "virtue" will hold us hostage in our own impoverished world. And the sooner we let God begin cleaning our heart of such toxic waste, the better.

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