09/10/2012 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

What We're Talking About When We're Talking About Cleansing

The 1981 Raymond Carver short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love masterfully showed us that everyone has a different conception of love. At the end of the eponymous story, Carver seems to suggest that while we may struggle to put into words what love is, it's worth the effort even if we fail.

I think a similar effort should be made with the contemporary practice of "cleansing," a term used here to cover a broad spectrum of behaviors (from colonics to detox diets/drinks) defined by an attempt at purification or elimination of undesirable material from our bodies.

Why make such an exploration?

A Google search on "health cleanses" draws about 4,830,000 entries. Clearly this is on a lot of people's minds. And the mind is my focus. The cleansing phenomenon is driven by a perception of self as dirty. Dirt, like love, means different things to different people.

The etymology of dirt (the dirt on dirt, so to speak) is telling. In Olde English "dritan" was a verb meaning to defecate. Middle English coined the noun "drit" for excrement. Over the years the i and the r swapped places, giving us "dirt." So it's not a stretch to see where the idea that if there's a place in us that needs cleaning, it must be that final pathway of our feces, the colon.

Our bodies turn food into feces. But we take in more than food. We take in ideas and experiences that are also "metabolized" in the sense that they are broken down and mined for useful material that we store in our memory and use in a variety of ways. They may be nourishing in that they provide a sense of wellbeing or the belief that we're a good person. Alternatively, some ideas and experiences give us mental indigestion. They tamper with our sense of our selves as decent. They make us feel dirty.

We all carry around an idea of what we should be. The distance (in our own estimation) between this ideal and where we actually live, defines how we feel about our self. Traditionally such self-evaluation was based largely on how we felt we were measuring up in our relationships as a spouse or son or mother or neighbor or citizen or religious community member.

Because the distance between our ideal self and actual self is so often a painfully large expanse littered with regret, every culture has had its way of addressing the feelings of being guilty, dirty, impure. We want to "come clean," to start over. Confession, prayer, fasts, sweathouses, service, and yes, now, colonics, all fit into this category.

So how did we get here?

The traditional roles mentioned remain powerful. But a new metric for assessing how we measure up has taken root. Now the moral meter appears to be our bodies, our diet and exercise. What do you weigh? How much red meat? Did you really have pizza last night? How often are you exercising? What is your cholesterol? How many cocktails? Are you flossing? Did you get your annual checkup or colonoscopy (not colonic!) or mammogram or Pap smear?

Don't get me wrong. We should take care of ourselves. But obsessing about our bodies will not replace the cleansing feelings that come from caring for others.

Our culture is attempting to substitute diets and detoxs for self-exploration and the hard plodding work of accepting what can't change and trying to change what can, for the better. As Raymond Carver said about love, it's worth the effort, even if we fail.