It has come as a complete shock to me and my western roots. It turns out that I have been a lazy bless-er. It's not that I never blessed a sneezer. If I was in conversation with someone and they sneezed all over me, I would say, "Bless you!" as I wiped debris off my face and torso.
But, if I was standing in line at Costco and the older gentleman seven people ahead of me in line sneezed quietly into his hanky, I would not even think about sending my blessing from among the cases of granola bars and giant bins of licorice. The way he tried to muffle the sound would make me think that he preferred to sneeze in private, and that the kindest thing I could do was pretend that no such thing ever happened.
Does this make me a bad person?
I don't really have a problem with all the blessing that's going on here on the east coast. It's kind of sweet if you think about it. Known for being stuffy and aloof, it turns out that easterners are incredibly conscientious, especially when it comes to one's involuntary, spasmodic actions.
However, I have to say that sneezing--a subject I spent very little time and energy on in the past--has pushed it's way forward in my list of Things I Have Mild Anxiety About.
First of all, I feel like my ears have to be cued to catch any unsuspecting sneezes from people around me. I always feel dumb when I'm the fourteenth person to bless someone. But I don't really want to be the first bless-er either; it feels a little too eager. I prefer to be fashionably late to the blessing. Being the second or third person to bless a sneezer is ideal, but not easy. It takes a lot of practice.
Secondly, and most importantly, I used to really enjoy the occasional sneeze. You know, just giving in to the whole thing with gusto and ending with a melodramatic crescendo of, "Aaaachooooo!"
It felt good.
Now, when I feel a sneeze coming on, I immediately glance around in horror, making a quick tally of all the people who will suddenly shift their attention to me. And then I check my teeth for broccoli. I try to stifle the sneeze. I clench my toes, my teeth, my butt. I close my eyes and shake my head as if to tell the sneeze, "No, no! Not here! Not now!" Sometimes I raise a single finger into the air, the international sign for, "Just a minute, I'm staving off a sneeze."
But it never works. I sneeze. And all the clenching and shaking before is sucked into the sneeze and wrangled into the whole ugly spasm. By all accounts it looks like I have not only sneezed but suffered a grand mol seizure at the same time.
Wait a minute.
I guess that explains why people feel it so necessary to exclaim, "Bless you!" For a split second, it must appear as if everything is on the line. People watching me sneeze must experience mild panic, reaching for their cell phones to dial 9-1-1 if necessary. When the moment passes, they must be so overwhelmed at my return to normal, they call out to invoke God's blessing--to reward me for my courageous fight and to keep me from ever suffering again.
I think I get it now.
Sneezing is much simpler in the west.