Back when I was in micro-biology class in college, the discussion of food poisoning came up, and our instructor talked about toxins produced by some bacteria on food that could not be killed by cooking. Having been made “deathly ill” once by eating meat that had been contaminated and then cooked, I knew personally how sick it could make you. People have even died. I’m not just talking about the bacteria that make you throw up or have diarrhea, but ones that poison your nervous system, or shut down your body.
Whilst most food poisoning bacteria make people ill when the bacteria themselves enter the body and affect the cells of the digestive system, causing gastrointestinal upset (*that is seldom more than uncomfortable,) others produce poisons that cause (*serious or even fatal) illness. These poisons are known as toxins and some are resistant to heat and will survive even cooking temperatures.
Certain bacteria are able to produce a hard coating to protect themselves from unfriendly conditions like heat, dryness, cold and chemicals. In this form the bacterium is known as a spore. Spores can survive high cooking temperatures. However, if good conditions return, the spore coating splits and a normal bacterium reappears and is able to multiply and cause food poisoning. (* emphasis mine)
Recently a friend of mine knowing that I produce my own meat here on the farm and keep a freezer full, called me in a panic. Her large home freezer had lost power apparently for several days and her meat in it had an off smell and a sort of slime on the surface. She wanted desperately to save the $400 worth of meat she had in there and asked me how she could accomplish this. She had washed the thawed pieces of meat with vinegar, but it still didn’t “smell quite right.”
I felt her pain, having had a freezer “die” once with a large amount of produce and meat inside which had to be thrown out, and I told her that in my opinion there was no way to save her meat safely. That there were toxins that might be on the meat that might be heat stable, and as bad as it was, I suggested that she throw the meat out just to be safe.
Later, in discussing this incident with my friend’s freezer with some other friends, who were discussing toxic people, the analogy between the “off” meat and some “toxic people” sort of hit me like a ton of bricks… I got to thinking that many times when we are dealing with someone, there is just some “off smell” about their behavior that tells us that they might be “toxic.”
One of my friends mentioned a guy she had met at a party, an attractive guy who struck up a conversation with her and asked her out on a date. She said that he asked her a question that was sort of strange. He said “What would you do if you knew that you had only one week to live?” Then he told her what he would do, he said “I would get all the drugs I could find and I would stay high the entire week, snorting and drinking, everything I could lay my hands on.”
The man’s idea of how to spend the last week of his life sort of gave my friend the willies, even though he was an attractive man, but she went on one date with him anyway. At the time she was studying for her finals at college, and she asked her friends to leave her alone for the next two weeks so she could concentrate on her work without interruption. The man, though, kept texting her and wouldn’t honor her request. She decided that he didn’t “pass the sniff test” and was intrusive, looking for attention, and not respecting the boundary she had given. I think my friend was very wise to stay away from this man.
Just as my courses in microbiology and infection control have made me aware of the effects that germs and their toxins can cause illnesses, even death, and as a butcher I am very careful in the way my meat is slaughtered, butchered, frozen and then cooked before it is eaten to prevent food-borne illness, I definitely see the analogy between the “sightly off” and the possibility of toxic, in both food and in people.
It is very seldom that a person who lacks a moral compass will not display some form of “off” behavior or expressed thoughts. It may not be illegal, or it may not be criminal, but seldom will they completely “pass the sniff test” 100% just as the man my friend met said he would do drugs for the last week of his life. To her that sounded a “bit off” but having learned about toxic people, when he became intrusive and ignored her boundaries as well, she knew in her mind that this was not the kind of person she wanted to become closer to.
I used to be much more tolerant of slightly “off” people, people who indicated that they would do something illegal if they thought they might get away with it. It sort of reminds me of a story that was attributed to Winston Churchill, but I really don’t know who said it.
At a party, a very posh party in England he was sitting next to a very fancy “lady” and he asked her a question, he said “Would you go to bed with me for a million pounds?” The woman thought about it for a minute and then said “Yes, I think I would.” Then he asked her “would you go to bed with me for ONE POUND?” She looked at him and said indignantly “WHAT do you think I AM?” Then he laughed and said “Madam, we’ve already established THAT, now we are just haggling over PRICE.”
I think that story illustrates that a moral compass shouldn’t depend on not getting caught, or upon the price of the “reward” for doing something immoral or illegal, though of course we know people who would steal if they thought they could get away with it, but are those the kind of people we want in our circle of intimacy?
Sometimes those people who don’t pass the “sniff” test are already in our circle of friends or family. This is unfortunate because now we must make a decision that may be painful to us. Just like my friend’s freezer full of meat was a huge loss to her, sometimes it is a huge emotional loss to us to sever a relationship with someone who fails the “sniff” test for a moral compass. We tend to want to find some way to “fix” it and we may want to deny that the problem could be “serious” to us and to them. Unfortunately, when the time comes that we “smell” the problem, we think we are in too deep to discard the person. Or we may stay in denial until not only the relationship is “sick” but until we are “ill” from the continued association with a “toxic” person that no amount of “fixing” on our part can accomplish.