Should We Say ‘Bless You’?

Have you ever given some thought to why most of us say ‘Bless you’ right after a person sneezes? The custom in question is age-old, and abandoning it in a moment doesn’t make sense – and why should we abandon it anyway? While some bloggers suggest that everyone drops the habit of saying the expression, it might not be the best idea. And here is why.

Image Credit: shutterstock.com / antpkr

What about the origins?

The expression usually follows when someone sneezes. The roots of the tradition can be traced as far as to ancient Greece, and there is no explanation that would be supported by all historians.

According to the theory reported by National Geographic, in 590 AD, a plague stroke, and Pope Gregory I, who wanted to try to prevent further expansion of the disease, ordered that everyone who sneezed was blessed as part of the efforts to seek God’s help. While medicine did not yet reveal that sneezing was a means of disease transmission, it was clear that this act was somehow associated with the plague. A century later, the original order turned into a tradition, and it became customary to wish God’s blessing when someone sneezed.

It is not the only explanation offered: some suppose that people living the 1st century AD believed that sneezing meant the Devil was trying to get into the soul of the one sneezing, or that the soul is trying to fight off evil spirits, and that was why they started saying ‘Bless you’.

However, the opposite idea was produced by other cultures: sneezing was also considered a blessing, a sign of God’s beneficence. Ancient Greeks considered sneezing to be a divine omen. That belief extended even to the present, as it is the reason why some people say that sneezing means the statement which has just been said is true.

Why the problem?

Some people seem to be annoyed when they hear ‘Bless you’, which is rather curious. They say expelling mucus is a natural process which is not worth calling attention to, especially if it’s a stranger. They get irritated when someone thanks in return to someone’s ‘Bless you’, as if the dialogue is something reprehensible. While it is far from becoming a trend, this call for abandoning the age-old tradition, which they back by saying the origins of the blessing are pagan, can deprive of us something important.

First, ‘Bless you’ is a form of communication. Isn’t it wonderful that complete strangers, who would not otherwise say a word to each other, wish someone health by means of God’s blessing? It is something that binds us, something that makes us closer, and unites us – even if it does so just for a second. It can even make your day when a stranger wishes you health – he is not obliged to, but he chose to do so to support you.

Second, whatever the origin of the expression, it does not really matter who used it besides Christians. There are myriads of words, and each of them is used by various religious communities and organizations. It is what you mean by saying it that matters, not who used to say so. If you really wish those blessing and health that are implied by it, why should it be abandoned?

Third, even if you want to consider it a secular term, it is part of politeness. Just as you say ‘Excuse me’ while passing someone by and touching them, ‘Bless you’ can be a sign that you do not ignore the sneezing person; it is a means of empathy.

There are a lot of things modern societies might benefit from eliminating, such as ignorance, indifference and irresponsibility, and the move to stop saying ‘Bless you’ seems to be out of place. In our modern world, in which everyone is afraid of touching other people because of the possibility of suits following friendly hugs, the expression may be one of the few threads left that bind strangers and make them pay attention to each other – even if it’s tiny droplets of mucus that trigger the response.

Sneezing is not about mucus and your appearing imperfect – it’s about our reaction to someone else’s problem.

Bless you. Even if you haven’t sneezed.

References:

Let’s All Stop Saying Bless You – Lifehacker.com

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