Why do we continue to bless people when they sneeze? It’s really a strange custom, and people never seem to think about it.
Of the list of uncontrollable bodily functions, it can rank pretty high on the annoying scale. Blinking, for example, is also out of our control, and is only annoying if someone does it to excess, without a normal rhythm, or does it way too slowly, like a stoner. Most of the time, however, we don’t even notice when someone is doing it. (And now that I’ve mentioned it, you are hyper-aware of how fast you are blinking, aren’t you? Sorry about that.)
Hiccups are also uncontrollable, but there is no phrase that you routinely say to someone with the hiccups, except for badgering the afflicted person with home remedies that never work. “Drink a glass of sugar water!” “Someone scare her!” “Hold your breath!” How about just leave me the hell alone until they pass? That doesn’t seem to be an option. But in no case does anyone bless the person with the hiccups. I guess you can just go to hell with your damn esophageal spasms.
Some people will argue that a burp is not uncontrollable. Well, that is not exactly true. You are able to control the presentation to a degree, like covering your mouth or trying to minimize the noise it makes, but you can’t completely stop it from happening. If someone burps in our culture, it really depends on who is around as to what the reaction will be. A full-on belch may be laughed at, scowled at, congratulated or scolded, depending on who dealt it and who witnessed it. A two year old might be the cutest little belcher ever, but a 40 year old man is going to get the stink-eye from his wife if there is company. Still, no one blesses the belchers.
Sneezing used to be thought of as a moment when one’s heart stopped, and people used to bless them so that their soul would be blessed just in case they didn’t come back from a particular sneeze. Now that we know that heart stoppage isn’t the case, why do we continue to bless people? Who even said that any of us has the authority to bless a soul before it passes on? I still reflexively say, “Bless you” to a sneezer, but when you think about it, do you really want to go on to meet your maker with MY blessing being the last one bestowed upon you? But socially, it is considered rude not to bless someone after a sneeze, so I just continue to say it, whether the person realizes what danger I may put their eternal soul into or not.
Next time you sneeze, I really hope, for your sake, that you are near someone with a little more authority. I will issue you a blessing alright, but you just may not want it.