Recently, I dutifully kept a semi-annual appointment to get my teeth cleaned, and when I positioned myself in the dentist’s chair (an uncomfortable, vulnerable place to start with) I was assaulted with a blanket of the previous patient’s perfume. The hygienist assured me she had wiped down the surfaces, and she quickly did that again. Still the smell persisted, and my throat felt closed and my eyes and nose watered through the appointment. Miserable.

The older I get, the much more reactive I am to fragrances. To be blunt, I hate perfume and cologne and other added aromas, at least the way they are too often worn. The point of leading with your overwhelming scent escapes me. Rarely do I come into contact with people who don’t have easy access to bathing water. (Exploring that luxury and its implications for those who lack it is a topic for another day). Why do so many presumably already clean folks think it’s attractive to slather themselves in strong odors?

A slight hint of fragrance that’s detectable with close contact, like a welcoming embrace, is one thing. The pervasive cloud that follows many people down the hall or sidewalk is offensive, and frankly, smells narcissistic to me. (If it’s an issue of being unaware of one’s excess, that’s yet another reason why all of us need a safe community who will speak the truth in love.) Less is more!

Beyond the annoyance, strong fragrance is also a significant health issue for some. Twice in recent months we have welcomed a participant to Bethesda Workshops whose respiratory or allergic condition created a potential medical emergency to the point that we banned all scented products from the workshop environment. Still, the cleaning supplies used by the hotel’s housekeeping staff presented a challenge we couldn’t control.

Neuroscience explains that more than any other sense, smell is intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion and memory. The brain’s olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, which includes structures that are vital to our mood, behavior and memory. Is it any wonder why smell is such a compelling focus for personal products and their advertising? Or why so many unsuspecting trauma survivors are highly susceptible to the triggers of scents?

Our modern environment is one of sensory overload. It’s not just fragrance; it’s the sights and sounds and movements of excess. The blanket of suffocating scent reminds me of the inescapable assault of our sexualized culture. Society is saturated with pornified exhibition and mindset. The tantalizing hint of mystery has been turned into a tide of overindulgence that would knock us off our feet if we weren’t so desensitized to it.

Like allergies to fragrance, the culture’s sensory overload is a health issue for all of us, actually. Our spirits need space to breathe. (Literally.) We need a rest from the assaulting, competing forces that inundate us.

I’m encouraged by the emerging movement to unplug from all the technology, at least occasionally. I love the resurgence of meditation and the emphasis on mindfulness. The ancient practices of spiritual retreats offer respite to our flooded souls. The simple disciplines of spiritual direction reconnect us to eternal truths.

For most of us, living life differently needs to include detaching from the sensory overload of our external environment and internal chaos. For a few moments each day, choose to walk out from under the perfumed cloud of commotion. Quiet your spirit. Listen to the stillness, feel the darkness, smell nature’s freshness. Taste and see that the Lord is present. Breathe in God’s spirit and be refreshed.

Marnie C. Ferree