The Eighth Deadly Sin: Fastidiousness

Everyone knows about the seven deadly sins. The dire consequences that can result from them are well documented. Each is sufficient to send a soul to Hell for all eternity, and all lead to corruption and death. However, there is another sin that goes unnoticed in comparison with the Big Seven. I call it the sin of fastidiousness. The very root of the word brings out its disagreeable qualities. “Fastidiousness” derives from the Latin and Middle English for “disgust,” “arrogance,” “tedium” and “scorn.”

Putting together various definitions of the term, we have the following noteworthy features:

A fastidious person tends to be

Overly Meticulous
Having high and often capricious standards
Difficult to please / quick to find fault / exacting
Excessively demanding / fussy / particular /delicate / scrupulous
Excessively sensitive with respect to taste, propriety or clothing style
Excessively concerned with cleanliness or tidiness
Having complex nutritional requirements (This comes from biology, but it could equally well apply to a certain kind of fastidious person.)

Like all sins, there is something excessive about being too fastidious about things. It is true that there are times and situations where we want meticulous people to take pains over every little detail of their work. We want fastidious surgeons who are concerned with cleanliness, and pilots who pay attention to flight routines and check lists. But as a sin, fastidiousness is a kind of excess of care or scrupulosity.

It is a shame to see people complaining of never being able to do anything or go anywhere because they have to clean the house or walk the dog. The house can wait, and dogs do not require servants. Another example is the person so concerned about germs that it becomes impossible to travel anywhere. “I would love to go, but there are too many germs” expresses a fastidiousness that gets in the way of living a full life. While keeping in mind that some prudence in life is necessary, it is a sin to see people thwart themselves because of imagined rules and complex personal rituals.

I remember my son loving the beach in California when he was little, but how he did not want to go there when he was older because there was ‘too much sand’ on the beach and it ‘got between one’s toes.’ How disgusting! However, if you are going to let a little thing like sand between your toes stop you from going to the beach, how much more impoverished is your life than if you were not prevented from doing so by purely imaginary blocks. The main problem with fastidiousness is that it puts the brakes on life.

The last years of Howard Hughes’ life provide an extreme example of this trait. His stellar career in aeronautics degenerated into hypochondria. He ended up living on the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel avoiding all possible contact with germs. He never left his room. In cases like this, fastidiousness merges with obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Of course, not all fastidious persons are so extreme, but the trait does circumscribe a person’s life. It is not wise to let one’s ad hoc personal preferences prevent the taking up of new pursuits and activities.

What is at the root of fastidiousness? I conjecture that fear lies behind it, the fear of change, and ultimately of death. Howard Hughes tried to cheat death by living a germ free life; but, of course, he died anyway. Perhaps it is the same impulse that leads to complex religious rules of living. The Romans were known to be extremely scrupulous about the observance of the traditional sacrifices. They would not act without taking the ‘omens’. To fail to do so involves pollution. So perhaps fastidiousness is also connected with notions of ‘purity.’ To break the rules, to let the sand run between your toes, feels like contacting some sort of ritual impurity.

Fastidiousness is experienced as ‘the way that things must be’. Fastidious persons have no idea that this trait hampers and circumscribes the flow and development of their lives. It prevents them from doing all sorts of things that might enrich them. For example, by making cleanliness the touch stone of choice, valuable experiences will tend to be considered off limits. Take wilderness camping. If one finds disgusting the idea of performing natural bodily functions in the bushes or behind trees, then it will be much more difficult to experience the sublimity of nature and the joys of true solitude.

In conclusion, it is only fair to point out that the sin of fastidiousness is not, in most cases, a moral sin. I doubt that anyone goes to hell for being fastidious. It is, rather, a sin whose punishment does not have to wait until the next life. The punishment is to live a cramped and narrow life, from which the fullness and range of human experience is excluded for no good reason. That is the sin of fastidiousness.

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