August 04, 2006

On the "Quality" of Purity

pu·ri·ty Pronunciation (pyr-t) n.
1. The quality or condition of being pure.
2. A quantitative assessment of homogeneity or uniformity.
3. Freedom from sin or guilt; innocence; chastity: "Teach your children . . . the belief in purity of body, mind and soul" Emmeline Pankhurst.
4. The absence in speech or writing of slang or other elements deemed inappropriate to good style.
5. The degree to which a color is free from being mixed with other colors.
[Middle English pur, from Old French, from Latin prus; see peu- in Indo-European roots.]
What is so great about purity?

Frankly, I'm not such a big fan of the idea. I am not suggesting that the other extreme of corruption is ideal either... but the broad advocation of purity does not sit well with me. I think that balance should be the focus, not purity!

What am I referring to?

Plenty of things. Innocence, for one. Lack of "taint" or "color" for another. Finally, too much of one good thing.

What about innocence?

Innocence is a quality that can only recede or remain constant in people over time. Experience constantly exposes us to new things; some of these things shocking and horrible like the death of a close loved one, or the marriage of another. ;-) Other things can only be experienced with other people (like sexual intercourse) in an intimate setting -- creating a great deal of mystery about what goes on behind those closed doors.

Unless we block out our memories, traumatizing events will remain with us for the rest of our lives. Even if we forget, paper records, people and other things exist and remind us that we are not so innocent after all.

Why is innocence valued?

When we see young children playing, people often comment "oh, to be so young and innocent again..." These children have something that we never will. However, is Ignorance a thing to be treasured? What about Confusion? Children are clueless, chaotic little creatures that need guidance and discipline. They can be brainwashed to learn absolute garbage or they can be groomed to become multi-talented bright young stars. Purity provides adults with a blank slate. Careful though! Kids scribble on slates just as well as parents do.

It is nice that children have a fresh outlook on life. This gives us perspective and in many ways, it balances our own lives.

We might get lost in the day to day "grown-up" activities of making money, paying bills and acting busy that we forget the reasons why we are working hard. Children live life. They want to learn new things, be amazed by the world and experience things! It is this process that enriches the lives of parents who rediscover their child-like wonder.

What were you saying about lack of "taint" or "color"?

How many colors are Red and Yellow and Blue? (Answer: Three.) Now, if you mix these three colors together in as many ways as you can think of, how many do you have now? (Answer: Lots! All the colors we know!) From an aesthetic point of view, which do you prefer?

Purity is boring. In many ways, purity is a cultural force that drives us to become stiff, self-conscious and dull. Purity can leech our lives of things that might be dangerous, exciting or fun. It also drives us to a single, unifying extreme; polarizing the world by drawing constrast between Us and Them.

How can we have too much of a good thing? What is wrong with that?

I'll answer with a story. In ancient Peru, Incan settlements were far apart from each other, from the Amazonian jungles in the east, through the mountainous Andes in the center, to the coastal plains in the West. In order to travel these long distances, Incans often carried bags of small leaves that gave them a boost of energy and suppressed their hunger. These leaves were so important to travel that distances were measured in how bags one ate along the way!

When the Spaniards first heard about this magical leaf with the powers to imbue strength and energy, they dismissed it as ignorant nonsense. However, they soon found out that they were true and they began to use it as a cash crop. It also had properties of pain-relief and it was beginning to worm its way into medicine.

The active ingredient in the leaves was isolated in 1855 and it was the subject of Albert Niemann's dissertation in which he stated that:
"Its solutions have an alkaline reaction, a bitter taste, promote the flow of saliva and leave a peculiar numbness, followed by a sense of cold when applied to the tongue."
Cool! It began to be used as a cure for flatulence, teeth whitening, toothache, morphine addiction. It was put into various drinks to enhance their ... experience. Coca-Cola is a famous example.

This magical leaf comes from the coca plant; the active ingredient that was isolated is cocaine. The Victorian era that used cocaine as a harmless anesthetic now looks quaint in comparison to now. We have a strong street drug culture hooked in the powerful cycle of addiction.

This might look like we have been tainted by the influence of cocaine on our society, making it less pure. This is true, to some extent. I prefer to see it as the purification of cocaine from the coca plant as the root of our current problem. Same goes with the poppy seed story. And perhaps,

What is the real evil of cocaine, though?

It is not the knowledge of how to isolate and purify these narcotic compounds. It is not necessarily their use either -- someone on their deathbed might need powerful painkillers as a palliative measure (and if they are going to die, the risk of addiction is irrelevant.)

The real evil is the ABuse of these drugs. The people who are irresponsible and use these powerful chemicals to mess up their bodies big time for a single, very selfish purpose -- entertainment and recreation.

Why should we be wary of purity?

It is important to remember that there is a balance in all things. Too much innocence makes kids vulnerable to bad influences because they don't know any better. Protect them, but at the same time, let them explore. It is important to educate them about consequences and responsibility.

Adults are just old kids. They can be subject to brainwashing too. In order to differentiate between good and bad things, we need the knowledge of good and evil. We make our judgments about what actions to take based on this knowledge -- an uninformed opinion is one in danger of being 50% wrong!

Everyone has their differences. Stamping a few of these differences out because they make other people feel uncomfortable is not a good thing. Diversity, exposure to many novel and interesting things, is what gives us a broader perspective about the world.

The isolation and purification of any particular thing, be it a certain group of people or a chemical, can lead to an overdose if abused! Purity driven by self-righteousness, greed, selfishness or hedonism is a destructive influence.

Purity must always be tempered by the virtues of balance, education, diversity and responsibility in order to be used wisely.

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