The scenario is all too familiar. You push a button and pace until the elevator arrives. Doors open, revealing you won’t be alone on your trek to the eighth floor. You nod to your fellow passenger, step inside, press the button, and fumble with your phone or watch while a looped track of bland jazz blares overhead.
“God bless you.”
The words spill off your tongue into the 4.5 by 6-foot space, intimately bonding you and said stranger in a momentary blessing.
The doors open and you step out of the box, leaving behind any guilt or obligation for not having offered an introduction, conversation or farewell to the stranger on your elevator expedition.
Should you be asked to explain this everyday phenomenon, best of luck.
Way back when, these blessings were spoken with greater urgency than a habitual tick. “God bless you” dates back to the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great said it during the bubonic plague. Sneezing was believed to be a symptom of a soul escaping the body and a heart momentarily stopping. “Bless you” was a way of welcoming someone back to life. All the prayer must have paid off, as the plague of 590 A.D. diminished.
Modern-day medicine busted the myths associated with sneezing, but the divine saying endured.
And the practice is not America-exclusive.
Around the globe you will find blessing renditions.
In Arabic countries, people say, “Alhamdulillah,” which means, “praise be to God.” Hindus say, “Live!” or “Live well!” In Russia, children are given the traditional response, “bud zdorov” (“be healthy”), and also told “rosti bolshoi” (“grow big”). In China, when a child sneezes he or she receives a “bai sui,” which means, “may you live 100 years.”
Jane Brody highlighted this universal oddity in a New York Times article headed “GESUNDHEIT! SNEEZING GETS A BIG REACTION”
“What health significance does a sneeze have that it invariably invokes a blessing when no other human sound or emission is cause for a benevolent remark? As Dr. Selig J. Kavka, a Chicago internist, recently noted in ‘The Journal of the American Medical Association,’ ‘No routine comment is invited by someone belching, coughing, groaning, hiccuping, retching, snoring, vomiting, wheezing, or sniffing, even when these symptoms may portend trouble.'”
But what about the sickling whose sneezes come in multiple waves of achoos? Does obligation require one to make sacred each snotty outburst? In a group, are you exempt if another beats you to the blessing punch? Are there any social settings where God-blessings are inappropriate? Are animals deserving of the same, nosy well-wishes?
Sneezing is an involuntary and primitive physical response. But, for some reason, we feel the need the need to speak to the nasal cavity relief of our elevator comrade.
Perhaps the courtesy is one of the last standing forms of altruism we extend without question. Because no one is beyond the realm of blessings, not the repeated sneezers, not the allergy-prone, the sun-starers, not even the Atheists.
Should you have to explain this everyday phenomenon? Or maybe you should simply accept it as an odd form of compassion. Either way, Pope Gregory the Great would be pleased to see his slogan survived the fear of an escaping soul.
You can’t stop the sneeze, you can’t hold back the blessing.