I get many of the ideas for this column from everyday events. Sometimes a student will say something that affects me immediately. Other times a comment takes a while to digest before I realize that it's column-worthy.
The topic today was one of those immediate inspirations. We were standing in a group and one of the students sneezed - not all that surprising an event this time of year. Someone immediately said, "God bless you" - also not very surprising. Then one of the students asked why people routinely offer a blessing when somebody sneezes, but not when they burp.
Students, being who they are, could not let it stop there. "How ‘bout a fart?" one of them added. "Why don't people get blessed for farts?"
These seem like fair questions, worthy of all the nodding that was going on in the group. Then I noticed that most of the students were looking at me. Surely I had the answer. A PhD psychologist must know these things. I thought about explaining that I lacked a course in Comparative Theology, and I did not have a minor in Digestive Disorders. But there was no time to say any of these things. I simply confessed my ignorance and asked them what they thought. We psychologists do that a lot.
So that's how it all began. It didn't end there, however, and I think it's reached the point where some of this is worth sharing with you.
It turns out that the first question is pretty easy to answer. The topic has been widely discussed, and was out there even before the internet facilitated sharing this kind of information. The most frequent explanation is that in days of old when humans were a primitive and superstitious species (as opposed to the enlightened and strictly rational beings we have become), the fear was that those gusts of wind produced by a sneeze might blow our souls right out of our bodies, straight through our nasal orifices. About the best protection we had in such moments was a hearty blessing offered by someone near us. That blessing implored the deity to intervene and keep our soul locked safely inside us for yet another day. Phew! Close call ! Without that "God bless you" it's anybody's guess where that eternal soul might have ended up. Stuck on a Kleenex, perhaps, or on whatever passed for a Kleenex in Medieval times when this nonsensical thinking thrived.
So much for that. We still haven't addressed why a sneeze warrants a blessing, but not a burp or some flatulence. Without pushing the delicacy line too far here, if gusts of wind are the concern, then either of those digestive responses might also be cause for worry. I mean, who's to say that our soul is housed in our chest cavity rather than our large intestine? Sneezing, burping, and flatulence are all bodily functions. Why single out one over the others? It hardly seems fair that the only way to get a decent blessing these days is to knock off a few sneezes.
I think another question lurks within this topic and it may be even more important than the sneeze vs. a burp issue. Why do we still carry on this "God Bless You!" tradition 500 years later? We can cut the folks back in Medieval Europe some slack for buying into this lunacy since they were hopelessly lost in the ignorance that passed for the human condition. But why does this same verbal habit persists today, half a millennium later? It seems unlikely that whoever utters one of those blessings this week really believes that God's intervention will keep a soul from disappearing in a gust of wind. So why do we still do it?
Like many things (have you ever "knocked on wood?"), these habits take on a life of their own, long after their superstitious roots have vanished into the mists of time. There are two psychological terms that apply here. (1) The first is functional autonomy - which is a fancy way of saying things become detached from their origins. Check it out for yourself. The next time you're in the vicinity of someone offering a blessing to a sneezer, just ask them for the reason. I'm betting that few if any of them will know why they did it. They'll probably tell you it's what you do. It would almost seem rude not to do it.
(2) The second term describes the things - events or customs - that become part of our culture. They are known as memes, to use Richard Dawkins' term. A meme is like a mind virus. It spreads within a population and, if it is well designed, it is easily and accurately transmitted from one person to another. Saying "God bless you" after a sneeze is one example. Other examples are things like popular songs, sayings, and fashion trends. They are the units of culture; they spread like viruses, infecting one mind and spreading to another. Just like genes, all memes are not created equal. Some catch on and spread a lot more effectively than others. Some are just not up to the task and die off. I could give you examples of the unsuccessful ones, but you wouldn't recognize them. That's just the point. They didn't make it. They are not part of our culture.
There are contemporary examples of memes that make no more sense than the post-sneeze blessing, but try not doing them and see how it feels. I've already written about the plague of uptalk and how it's affected our spoken language. Some of you wrote in to complain about other linguistic memes such as beginning sentences with "Like" or "Omygod!" or calling something "awesome." Forgetting teen linguistic memes for the moment, imagine that you've just won the lottery. How easy would it be for you not to offer a "Thank you" to somebody, somewhere? You know it was just luck, but somehow it feels necessary to offer a Thank You.
The most frequent target is, of course, God. But do you really think that a deity, however you define him or her, has become involved in your personal case and intervened and decreed that you should win a cash prize? Is that how you imagine God? Keep in mind that such a lottery victory for you might have come at the cost of a payout to somebody else - perhaps a needy soul who also bought a ticket? Why did their prayers for material gain go unanswered? What kind of theology allows for you to be selected over a desperate, penniless family with a sad little boy and an adorable puppy? There are only so many lottery payouts and it is your victory that may have cost them dearly. Do you think that is the way God works? Few people would say "yes" to that question, yet those thoughtless "Thank God's " are uttered as reflexively as one of those post-sneeze blessings. This is simply how our minds work in 2011 when they have been infected by a meme.
The human mind and the culture it creates is not quite the stuff of rational thought. Try putting these ideas in action by starting your own meme. You might try blessing someone after a burp or a display of flatulence. Do you think that meme will catch on? My guess is, it won't, although it makes just as much sense as the post-sneeze variety. Admittedly, this leaves unanswered the question of "Why not farts?" as one of my students indelicately put it. Perhaps I'll leave it for one of you to pursue that question.
If you want to read more of this kind of material, I respectfully invite you to have a look at my book, Caveman Logic (www.cavemanlogic.com), the namesake of this column. Some of you may find it entertaining or enlightening; others will hate it. I think by now you know who you are.
Illustration: Athena Gubbe