Monday, October 12, 2009


Why do people say "God bless you" when you sneeze within their hearing distant (not to mention within spray distance). No matter where you might be, like on a train for instance, some total stranger two rows back happily asks God to bless you just because you go a-schwew. The sneezer is blessed even when he fails to cover his mouth and risks infecting the whole bus.

Why would God give a damn that I sneeze? I read once that this practise goes back to Medieval times when people thought that every time a person sneezed, a little bit of that person's soul escaped his body. Okay, that's a quaint notion but last time I checked we are living in the 21st century.

Why would a person bless a total stranger? What if the sneezer was an atheist who might be offended by the proffered blessing. What if the sneezer was evil, like a child molester or murderer? Would you bless Bernie Madoff if you heard him sneezing in the cell next to you? Conversely, why should I accept your blessing? For all I know, you too could be a child molester or murderer whose blessing isn't worth the expenditure of breath. In my book, strangers shouldn't bless strangers nor should strangers accept blessings from strangers. It's a wicked world out there, so you have to be judicious about throwing blessings around or accepting them willy-nilly.

I'm further annoyed that this elevation of sneezing to a religious matter puts pressure on me to bless someone who sneezes in my vicinity. I usually don't offer my blessings, but I can't help feel a slight twinge of guilt from breaking a social custom; and I don't like feeling guilty over a sniffle.

Okay, I admit that I'm coming across as some sourpuss Andy Rooney curmudgeon. The sociologist in me recognizes that little acts of civility, kindness, graciousness are the glue that keeps our frenetic, borderline schizofrenic society intact. As Guiliani proved in bringing down NYC's crime rate, it's those little acts of incivility, petty crimes, blatant disrespect for the law that create a culture of complacency which accepts more serious crimes as just part of the landscape. On the flip side, displays of politeness and consideration for others help create a milieu of social amity.

For example, have you noticed how more often than not, men allow women to enter and exit elevators first? This little remnant of chivalry exists despite the Age of Feminism which sneered upon such patronizing, "patriarchial" behavior. Every once in a while, you'll even see a gentleman give up his seat to a lady on the subway or bus. (It's a shame how even the words "gentleman" and "lady" seem to be relics of a bygone era.) Along the same lines, in certain parts of the country, particularly the South, it's customary to wave at people for no particular reason, even if they are total strangers.

I guess this Gesundheit tradition is part of the same effort, sometimes desperate, to just get along with one another, to paraphrase that famous humanitarian, Rodney King. For that reason I'm willing to bear with it and not say to the person who happens to bless me when I sneeze, "Mind your own business, bud."

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