We see things differently now than we did six weeks ago. We will not return to the normal we knew before. Together we’ll carve out a new normal over the next couple years. Things looming very large and important—air travel, mergers and acquisitions, and the Stanley Cup—now seem like a distant memory. And the simple things we didn’t much notice before—firewood, fresh produce, and soap—are magnified in their importance. Let’s take soap, for example. Who invented it?
Extant remains of soap date back to 2800 BC in Babylon. As for me, I remember a school project for Mrs. Brown in Social Studies, making soap as the American colonists did. Mom helped and it took an absurd amount effort for something so simple. Soap is created by mixing fats and oils with a base. Doubting ourselves every step, we knew we must be doing it wrong. We hatched a massively bleak pale brick. Mrs. Brown gave me an A on the project less for the impressiveness of the brick or for its usefulness in handwashing. It was more about how essential something that basic is and learning how hard our forebears had to work for an amenity we take for granted every day. I still remember this 52 years later, right?
We aren’t taking soap for granted now, are we? In a recent article, science writer Ferris Jabr describes the molecular properties of soap making it one of our most effective deterrents against pathogens. A single drop of soap in water is enough, he writes, to disrupt and kill all kinds of nasty and threatening microbes, including the coronavirus. Despite being highly contagious and its ability to kill swaths of population, scientists consider COVID19 wimpy because it’s so easily eradicated.
Something so simple as soap–along with its cousins spray cleaner (which we still make from scratch) and cleansing wipes–acquire a heroic status taking on this pathogen brute. Adequate handwashing done just right has made me confident rather than spooked returning home these days from a menacing world out there.
Simple soap is more than pulling its weight as ventilator manufacturers and PPE providers lag. In an age of much-vaunted gene therapy and robotic surgery, our shielding wonder of wonders turns out to be ordinary, common, and very ancient.
I remember my mother teaching me how to wash my face and hands. It is a core memory, like her teaching me to kneel bedside next to her and say nighttime prayers. Incredible, isn’t it? The things that protect us are not always new, exotic, costly, technological, or rare. Sometimes what makes us whole are the things our grandparents recommended, the remedies our ancestors believed in, the ancient basic things that have sustained individuals and guided civilizations for millennia.
This odd time offers perspective on what matters most. Like our children saying the Lord’s Prayer with us. Like sourdough bread left on our porch. Like putting aside being right to forgive another. Like grace at meals. Like patience to outlast threats. Like pure gratitude always. Notice these now so you can seek them later.