Oct 25, 2023–The next time I sneeze, don’t bless me.
That universal reaction to what is essentially an involuntary intimate act disturbs me. Those two simple words–Bless You–while a loving benediction in other contexts, when used after a snot-spraying convulsion convey all the irritating, irrational aspects of societal expectations.
First of all, the act of sneezing is a personal physical function that cannot be denied. You feel it building in your nose as some infinitesimal irritant infests the lining of your sinuses. To make it worse, this usually occurs when you are perched among professional peers or kneeling next to supplicants inside a house of worship. That little tickle slowly builds until you cannot hold back release. At the moment the dam inevitably bursts, the sneezer desires only one thing–to curl up in a ball and roll under the table.
But, no. Instead, when you are most vulnerable, when a violent discharge erupts from deep inside your nasal passage, spewing spittle and foreign objects arcing across the sky, a slender thread of glistening mucus trailing down your upper lip, every single person in that room immediately looks at you and yells, “BLESS YOU!”
This is the moment of mortification. Your personal hygiene has become fodder for public discussion. Every eye is on the sneezer.
While they feign compassion and support, the behavior is ghoulish. Unsolicited speculation and explanations pour forth. The act gives tacit permission to gauge the state of your health: “It’s allergies!” “Hope you’re not coming down with something.” “My fourth cousin died from the croup.”
They are vultures eying a limping wildebeest, waiting to gather round the carcass of gossip.
Once you have successfully sneezed and contained the debris on the inside of your sleeve, the moment passes, and attention returns to the next agenda item. However, bless you if you enter the gauntlet of the dreaded “serial sneeze.”
“Bless you… bless you… bless you… bless you…”
Sneezing elicits the trifecta of embarrassment for the introvert:
– you perform an embarrassing act in public
– you draw the attention of everyone in the room
– you endure a meaningless ancient ritual rooted in ignorance and superstition
Two theories attempt to explain its origin:
In one, the ancients used to believe a sneeze caused you to expel your soul out of their body. Saying “Bless you” was supposed to keep the devil from snatching it away.
The other theory was that it arose in the 14th century during the bubonic plague. “Bless you” was a benediction for the sneezer’s impending demise. This is not far from the limping wildebeest scenario.
Both reasons have been debunked, yet, here we are, centuries later, still fighting the devil and the deep black plague with “Bless you.”
You may dismiss this diatribe as a tempest in a neti pot, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. The average person sneezes 400 times a year. You cannot escape its well-meaning yet misplaced aftermath.
The urge to bless you is as ingrained as the act of sneezing itself. I, too, am guilty. As I was writing this column, my grand sneezed across the room.
“Bless…” came out of my mouth before I caught myself.