All The More Reason

On Sneezing
January 29, 2007, 6:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

As you might expect, contributors to All The More Reason apply the highest and most rigid standards of logic and rational thought to their everyday lives. Superstition and mumbo-jumbo are constantly, and actively, rejected. Jonathan Smith often spends hours at the weekend purposefully seeking out ladders to walk beneath; Justin McClintock celebrates Xmas (with an X), but only because his mother would be upset if he did not. Allow me to give you an insight into my own Enlightened mind.

I work in an office of four people which, as a consequence of its size, is extremely friendly and comradely. Not a single cup of tea is brewed without prior inquiry as to the others’ need for refreshment; a trip to the shop to buy biscuits will, as a matter of strict propriety, involve running an errand for anyone who requests it. It is therefore with some trepidation that I have decided to engage in an exercise that could upset the gentile balance of my workplace. Perhaps irrecoverably.

At this time of year, it is common for those of us with less than robust immune systems to have a more or less ever-present cold, with the attendant secretion of mucas that is sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘the sniffles’. Sneezing is an obvious and inevitable by-product of this condition. A ritual that is no doubt familiar to you has entrenched itself in our office. It goes something like this:

Me: (sneezes)
Colleague 1: Bless you!
Me: (sneezes again)
Colleague 2: Bless you!!
Me: Thank…(sneezes again)
Colleague 3: Bless you!!!
Me: Thank you.

Now, as we all know, the origins of this archaic sneeze-rhetoric are to be found in the aged belief that when one sneezes, the heart stops, the soul leaves the body and can – in the absence of godly intervention- be snatched by an evil spirit. It’s a perfectly sound thesis, and, admittedly, I have no way of knowing whether or not my soul has ever been snatched by any spirits, evil or otherwise. Purely on the basis of what little I know of medical science, the contingency strikes me as remote. It is probably something that insurance companies would hesitate to provide cover for, not least because risk-assessors would inevitably have to delve into our personal sneeze-histories to an intolerably intrusive extent. (I find it stressful making a claim for a stolen mobile phone; I can only imagine having to furnish Endsleigh Insurance with a list of occasions on which I may have ‘sneezed alone/sneezed whilst sleeping/sneezed on public transport in an “unfriendly” [see appendices] carriage’, in order to qualify for my no-claims bonus. But I digress.)

For reasons of philosophical consistency, I have therefore decided to reject the superstitious flummery that accompanies the body’s involuntary response to irritation in the nasal passages. Henceforth, I shall accept blessings, but I shall no longer dispense them. The first post-Enlightenment sneeze was a tense affair. My colleague let rip, her heart momentarily ceasing to function and her earthly soul, and phlegm, spilling out over the work-surface. In spite of the weight of over eight hundred years of tradition, I said nothing. There was deafening silence, followed by a rather pointed…‘Bless Me’. Wisely, she was taking no chances.

Of all the small, everyday rituals that we unthinkingly undertake each day, the ‘Bless You’ is probably one of the most insignificant. I don’t seriously mean to suggest that anyone uttering the formula genuinely believes in – or even knows of – its provenance. They are (the worrying self-benediction of my colleague aside) just being polite. And I, by extension, may justifiably be accused of being rude and petty. So be it. Perhaps, several hundred years ago, I would have been accused of something far worse.

It is of interest to note here that in the 17th century, the act of sneezing was believed literally to ‘clear the mind’: this belief actually started something of a craze. Aristocrats would use snuff to artificially induce a sneeze, thereby proving both their privileged credentials and, ironically enough, their clear-headedness. As a consequence, the sneeze was often employed as a token of disapproval when something idiotic was uttered by someone from whom idiocy was to be expected. The passing of time and the application of reason has, again, eroded this once widespread habit, its residue still apparent whenever we say that something is ‘not to be sneezed at’.

On the vast spectrum of inherited irrationality, these examples probably sit nearer to ‘touching wood’ than, say, refusing to shake the hand of a menstruating woman. Irrationality is not always the preserve of the irrational, and where this incongruity rears its head, the culprit is normally unthinking tradition. Its dead weight is often so great that the revelation of an underlying superstition can prove an arduous task. But it should never be impossible. A single nudge may be insufficient, but a collective nudge by hundreds, thousands- even millions – of the clear-headed can lighten the load. It is incumbent on all of us to treat all of these supposedly serious things with the triviality they deserve. And in so doing, let us not be accused of being trivial ourselves- it’s a serious business. And not one to be sneezed at.

Michael P


2 Comments so far
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I believe that a clarification should at least be considered. Many an arrogant young man, myself included, has blindly rejected tradition (let’s limit the cases to those based on superstition). But in doing so, I think we risk throwing the bacon out with the lard.

People can be right for the wrong reasons, and superstition is a perfect example of it. Prayers do provide a moment of respite in an otherwise unbearable situation. Ritual, such as rosary beads, provide a sense of security in an insecure moment (it’s less the appeal to the Holy Mary, and more the repetition of something familiar to us – Oasis’ Wonderwall might work just as well). Saying “bless you” provides a sense of togetherness and care to someone in need. Could the handing of a handkerchief have the same effect? Most probably. But there are other actions based on superstitious behaviour that seem to have a monopoly on the territory.

To be fair, it appears that with the example given here, you’re suggesting one should be aware of the lineage of a behaviour before casting it aside.

Comment by J.S.

You make a good point about people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Our culture is full of little white lies and self-delusions that simply serve to make us feel better. Is there anything wrong with that? Not entirely: most are harmless. There are some concerns that I have though.

One problem obviously arises if we are forced- either by direct coercion, or indirect social pressure to participate in superstition. We can all think of examples where this might be the case. Defending ingrained custom simply because it is ingrained is not good enough. People should be free to judge these rituals on their own merits, and ‘opt out’ of them if they so wish.

I chose the ‘bless you’ because I think that it is a good example of how a pseudo-religious ritual has become ‘secularized’. As a result, non-observance should not nowadays pose any problem. (I understand, as you say, that it may ‘provide a sense of togetherness and care’. It would be nice to think that this were the case; personally, I think it’s more of an ingrained social reflex. There is no equivalent expression of care for someone with, say, a hacking cough- even though this is liable to be much more harmful to its sufferer than a sneeze. (Incidentally, the middle ground I have arrived at is to say the more meaningful German word ‘Gesundheit’, although only if someone is really suffering from a sneezing fit- these rituals lose what little value they have if they are overused.)

Coercion aside, superstition can also be harmful to the person who indulges in it. You mention prayer. I think this falls into a grey area. What one might call the ‘placebo’ effect of prayer, or religion itself, is harmless if it gives peace of mind in extremis or even in more mundane circumstances. But the point of a placebo is that it suggests, rather than provides, a cure. Like a sportsman who wears his lucky socks on the day of the cup final, someone who prays may gain confidence or strength without realising that the virtues they are praying for are already there. Even worse, when the virtues are entirely absent, the prayers are nothing more than a note to Santa Claus certain to end in tears. This is masochistic and to be discouraged.

I would be the last to suggest trimming bacon of all its fat. It’s tasty, and a little bit every now and then does you no harm. The problem arises though when it becomes a staple part of your diet. That sort of indulgence can make you lazy. If you are feeding your children on it, they too will grow bloated. You can see where I’m going with this.

Comment by Michael P

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