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sneezeThere are certain behaviors that have been socialized into almost all of us.  Of those, almost none are more pervasive than the act of ‘blessing’ someone after they sneeze.  I had never thought anything of this habit, that is, until I went to Korea.  It’s not that Koreans aren’t into God.  We’ve already discussed that Koreans most definitely are a God-fearing people, like us.  However, unlike us, they forego the post-sneeze blessing.  You could let loose an air-raid level sneeze in a crowded room in Korea, and hear nothing but crickets.

I suppose I found this disquieting at first.  Sometimes I would relent and toss out a ‘bless you’, though it would usually fall on deafening silence.  It’s not that Koreans didn’t know what I was doing, in fact many of them were excited to hear me use it, as they had heard that Americans do such things.  Though that excitement only came out because they saw my reaction as a novelty.  To them, I suppose sneezing is a personal thing, and any acknowledgement thereafter is superfluous.  I definitely didn’t get it at first.  Sneezing to a room of utter silence just felt so… naked.  Then I began to think about the ramifications of the post-sneeze blessing.

What does it say about us as a people that we invoke God after what is essentially just a bodily discharge?  Having considered that, why don’t we all bless each other after a fart or a burp?  After all; farting, burping, and sneezing are hardly dissimilar.  There’s almost no difference between a sneeze and a cough, and yet coughing goes unanswered.  Do we not bless after the cough because it’s less… silly-sounding than the sneeze?  If so, isn’t the blessing then totally superficial?

I think the most fascinating thing about the ‘bless you’ is that it is commonly used by people who practice little-to-no religion in their daily lives.  When you don’t profess to have faith, from what well of divine juice do you fish out your blessings?  Of course most non-religious people don’t consider the implications of a ‘bless you’, because it’s just something that Americans do.  When someone sneezes, we bless them, and it has nothing to do with God.  Right?  But when you think about it, blessings cannot really be secular.  Thus, I have no problem with a religious person throwing it around after I let fly, but how can it not be hollow from a non believer?  Listen, I don’t personally buy into faith, so I can’t really accept a truly religious ‘bless you’.  But I appreciate a religious ‘bless you’ a bit more because it has some weight.  I’d rather get something else from a non-believer, maybe something that actually means something to them.

So let’s really discuss the merits of a ‘bless you’, and I’m talking now to all those out there like me who don’t really see a place for ourselves in the pews on Sunday.  Do we a)just cut out our use of bless you (as I basically have) or b)do we come up with a secular alternative for our use.  Let’s talk about the second option.  What is important to secular people?  Let’s say… money.  So if money is the God of secular people, do we then say “Good wealth, brother” to a dude who has just sneezed?  Or let’s say you’re a secular person who’s really into music.  Should you use “Rock on!” when in the presence of a sneeze?

Right now I’ve officially abandoned saying anything after a sneeze.  In Korea this would be normal, but just yesterday it got me into an awkward situation.  I’m sitting in a room with one other guy, we’re both working on various materials, he sneezes, I do nothing, he sneezes again, I do nothing again, repeat x 2.  The whole time I’m sitting there thinking, “This guy must think I’m a douche bag.”  But really, aren’t I just a more conscientious person for not blessing him with religious capital that I don’t really have?  After all, you wouldn’t write a check you couldn’t cash…

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