Why do we clean?

This morning, I will have the pleasure of Skyping with two classes of rising 9th graders who have read WOOL. I only have thirty minutes with each class, and I’m already bracing for impact. There’s a question I expect to hear from them, one that could consume hours of boring philosophical dialogue, so I’m heading that off at the pass with a little blog entry for anyone to read and fall asleep to at their leisure.

In the WOOL universe, the most confounding mystery (even to its inhabitants) is the question of: Why do they clean? Why do those sent outside, banished, given a death sentence, do this final act of kindness before they go?

Isn’t this the mystery, though, of our own lives? In two weeks, I, ZOMBIE will be unleashed upon the world. It also wrestles with this question of free will and why we do things we either swear we won’t or wish we wouldn’t. How many of us sit down to be productive, sit down to write, sort bills, do homework or finish a project, and we find ourselves browsing the web or staring at Facebook, instead? We said we wouldn’t. We promised ourselves. And yet, there we are, doing something we know we’ll feel guilty about later, not truly in charge of ourselves.

I don’t know what world awaits these rising 9th graders, but when I was a freshmen, we could count on being thrown into bushes. Why schools planted bushes with prickly points, I’ll never know. They must be a bunch of sadists. Every year, without fail, freshmen were thrown into bushes. And every year, without fail, freshmen vowed to not be dicks when they were seniors. And every year, without fail, another class of juniors became a class of seniors who forgot the promises they made when they were freshmen.

They were sent out to clean, promised they wouldn’t but something changed along the way. They got distracted. They saw the world in a different light. They crossed a boundary, had new chemicals soar through their veins, and now they can’t *not* clean.

The Stanford Prison Guard experiment of 1971 bore this out, and it’s one of the saddest truths of the human condition that I’ve ever run across. In the experiment, a group of volunteers were divided into “prisoners” and “guards.” The latter were put in charge of the former. What happened next was disturbing. Guards became abusive and prisoners meek. Within days, the verbal and physical violence grew horrific. But what happened next was truly stunning. They switched the two groups around. And soon, the behaviors were reversed. Former prisoners, knowing how horrible it felt to be abused, did it nonetheless. I imagine they would have promised, sitting behind those bars, that they would be different. But they can’t be. They can’t *not* clean.

Have you heard of the “Curse of the Lotto?” There have been countless stories, both popular-media sensational accounts and more formal sociological ones, that study the often horrible outcomes that befall lottery winners. And it isn’t just that family members swarm the luck-stricken; it’s also the changes in behavior and mentality that the winners suffer. All the promises of writing checks for millions of dollars to everyone they know suddenly vanish when the impossible happens. They said they wouldn’t be this person. They would invest and be smart with their money. But they rarely do. They are a different person before winning the lottery than they are afterward. They’ve been sent to clean, have crossed the Rubicon, and what once puzzled them about others now makes perfect sense. They are watching themselves do it, justifying it in their own minds with reasons and excuses, but that’s not truly why. They couldn’t *not* do it.

One of the best books I read last year was WILLPOWER, which looked into our inability to take control of our behavior. The best chapter was on Oprah, who has been very open and public about her battle with obesity. Think about this: Oprah is one of the hardest working and driven people on the planet. Her work ethic is second to none. She busts her butt every day doing a thousand different things. She has all the money in the world to throw at this problem, which has meant hiring personal trainers (the best in the world) private chefs (ditto) nutritionists (again, the top of the heap). What does all her power, wealth, and motivation bring her? The same cycle of diet and binging we all go through. She has the longest lever imaginable, and still she cannot budge that stone.

We like to think we’ll be different when we face certain challenges. We’ll exercise more as we get older. We’ll be better to our parents and our children. We’ll be nicer to those beneath us when we are given power at work, at home, at school. We’ll work harder for those who manage us. We’ll be gracious in defeat and humble in victory. We’ll be good people, better than those who give us pause about the human condition.

Alas, we all think these things. We make promises. But when we are sent to clean, when we have our moment, what do we do? Forget what you think you would do. Stop for a moment. Stop pretending and go look at every study made on the subject. Look at Oprah. Look at every person addicted to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or time-wasters like video games and social networks. Look at the self-loathing. We don’t do these things because they make us happy; we do them in spite of the fact that they make us miserable. That’s because the part of our brains, the reptilian part that’s millions of years old where chemical happiness lies, is different from the newer part where more self-aware joys reside. And we are slaves to our chemical happiness, not to our conscious happiness.

If you hook a rat up to a machine that gives its pleasure center a little jolt of electricity when it presses a button (yes, scientists do this sort of thing), guess what the rat does? It presses the button until it dies. It forgoes food, water, and sex, the three stronger drives out there, the ones we would perish and go extinct without, just to taste that chemical joy at the middle of our most primitive brains.

Those rats are cleaning. If you look around, you spend a good part of your own day cleaning. Come late December, we will make promises. We will sit in that tiny cell of time between Christmas and the New Year and we will make promises. We will say that we’ll exercise more, diet more, eat more healthily, be more productive, be better to our friends and family … but we won’t.

And maybe that’s why so many readers reject the conclusions WOOL comes to. Because the fatalistic truth is too painful to bear. So we lie to ourselves rather than bare our teeth and attack this truth head-on. We cower from it rather than be bold against it. You know what? I clean all the damn time. And I hate myself for it. But I’ve found more strength and have won more victories over these urges by studying them, by understanding them, by knowing what takes place and why. It’s how I quit smoking, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s how I get up every morning to write, when there’s no one there forcing me to.

I am a weak person. I know this about myself. I have spent countless hours playing video games and putting off exercise. I smoked a pack a day for fifteen years, and I hated almost every one of those cigarettes. I didn’t try hard enough at most everything I’ve done, from soccer and my studies in high school to almost everything I’ve tackled since. Left to my own devices, I’d probably sleep my life away or waste it on frivolities. And not because I truly *want* to, but because a small part of my brain wants me to.

It wants me to clean. And dammit, maybe I will. But knowing this about myself gives me the best chance that I have to beat the sucker.

11 responses to “Why do we clean?”

  1. Definitely one of the best posts I’ve read on any blog in a while!

    We tell ourselves “It’s OK” to do what we shouldn’t despite knowing otherwise and end up hating ourselves for it later. The terrible thing is that before we make a wrong turn, our brains rationalize our actions, oftentimes in mere milliseconds. Consciously we may have bought into something, but subconsciously we’re against it.

    Until our conscious and subconscious minds are on one accord, we will always be at war with ourselves.

    My $0.02

  2. Matthew McKinley Avatar
    Matthew McKinley

    Well, I clean because my wife tells me to. =^)

    I’m a terrible procrastinator. (Or should that be a great procrastinator?) It’s easy to let things get cluttered, and not do anything about it. But when you do make the decision to clean, and when you’re done and sitting back down on the coach, there is a feel-good that is, in a sense, a reward. It’s not easy to get movitated to do things, but the hindsight makes you wonder why you didn’t do it earlier. Strange dichotomy.

    BTW, I smoked for about the same amount of time, and now am just over 5 years (almost) smoke-free. (I’ve had two since then. Hated them.) Once I finally made the decision (again) to quit, it actually wasn’t that hard; I was just done. Other attempts were not nearly as easy, I presume because I wasn’t mentally ready to quit. But the last time, piece of cake. How’d it go for you?

  3. Great well-reasoned, insightful post. Gotta go. This minesweeper isn’t gonna solve itself.

  4. Very well said. I spend most days doing what I call “managing the guilt.” I take the dog running because I know if I don’t she’ll make sure I feel the guilt later. I avoid ordering desert because I know I’ll feel the guilt. I work extra late because I feel guilty for Facebook time during the day. I can rarely finish a video game because I feel guilty for wasting more than a few hours being unproductive. Maybe it’s the religious up-bringing that led to this self-flagellating behavior, but making sure I keep a healthy level of guilt is the only way I avoid the distractions I’m drawn to.

    What worries me is how society has built up to embrace the distraction rather than the guilt. We now have an endless array of ways to prime the dopamine receptors. Television, video games, movies, music, drugs, food, “social” media are all pleasurable distractions that take away from being productive or improving ourselves or society as a whole. I’m really worried that Mike Judge’s prescient movie “Idiocracy” is well underway today.

    We’re all weak creatures by nature and we all have to find our own control mechanisms to make us do the right thing. Whether it’s guilt, religion, Hobbesian social contract or someone with a big stick, we all have to find our own way to fight against the natural self-interested pleasure drive. They’ve evolved to protect us when resources are scarce, but they’re now abused to the detriment of ourselves and our society. I just worry that I spend more time on the bad side of the guilt-karma balance myself and that we as a community spend less time looking out for the benefit of society as a whole.

  5. Carol Lampkin Avatar

    As the argon haze cleared away and he emerged upon a world full of false greenery, Holston spun slowly in an attempt to absorb what lay before him. Mind racing, he approached each of the four sensors and scrubbed as every other unfortunate soul who cleared the airlocks before him once had.

    The way that Wool was written made it easy for the reader to feel as though they were experiencing what the characters were going through. It trapped you inside a suit and made you long for an escape with them. In my opinion people cleaned simply because their minds were to “blown” to do anything else. Their entire worlds were turned upside down – everything they knew had instantly changed. When affronted in such ways we seek to regain control. I think that Holston cleaned because it was the only thing he knew he was supposed to do. He did it so that he could think about all the new information and implications surrounding him. He did it to still his mind and figure out what he was to do next. I think it is as fundamental as that.

    We *clean* because it is familiar and comfortable. We *clean* to avoid uncertainties and thus failures. It is a way to avoid conflict and to satisfy our basic physiological and security needs described in Maslow’s laws. It all boils down to human nature and that is something that not one of us can change.

  6. Awesome. And dishearteningly authentic. I find this kind of stuff so interesting. Why we do what we do.

    I’ll have to check out WILLPOWER. You should look into The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Good stuff. :)

  7. On a related theme, I’d recommend “The Screwfly Solution”, a short story by James Tiptree Junior, a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon. If you haven’t already read it it’s a must read.

  8. This dilemma is as old as the hills – the Apostle Paul alluded to it in Roman 7:15… “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” King James version. We have a contrary nature right down to the lowest levels of our DNA. We will always be waging a war between good and evil and never sure which is which. We will yearn for the deepest desires of our heart – never being sure just what that might be – and even when we achieve those desires we will never be satisfied – never be sure that was what we wanted in the first place. At the very end, when all options are gone, we will look into eternity, curse the one lifeline we have left and as we walk into the light, we will clean.

  9. You know, Hugh, I wish I could spill my guts here in the comments, but most people will find it disturbing. It took me a painful memory to wake up, to give up shopping, bar-hopping, party-going, procrastinating, sleeping in, being lazy, you name it – for what actually mattered to me most. To write. People ask me how I did it, and maybe one day I’ll write a whole book on the subject. But I’ll only say this here. It was a moment, a short moment in the kitchen, past midnight, with a knife. A simple kitchen knife that I kept tracing on my belly, working up the courage to slice. The pain was unbearable, and I didn’t know how else to let it out except to cut myself open and spill. In that moment, I thought – no way. I will live, to tell the story. And, you know, after that – no cleaning for me ;) Well, occasionally I do fall into the trap. But being close to taking my own life changed me forever.

  10. Blake mcnemar Avatar

    Omg that was incredibly insightful! You have such a way with words!(obviously lol)

  11. We will always be waging a war between good and evil and never sure which is which. We will yearn for the deepest desires of our heart – never being sure just what that might be – and even when we achieve those desires we will never be satisfied – never be sure that was what we wanted in the first place

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