I was at a school program back in December when a man standing behind me sneezed. I turned and said, “God bless you.” His friend standing next to him marveled at my gesture and remarked that you hardly ever hear anyone say “bless you” anymore, even less “God bless you.” Call me old fashioned, I don’t mind, but it just seems polite. It’s a way of saying, “I heard you sneeze and I hope you are not ill; but if you are, I hope you get better soon.”
As to why we don’t generally hear it much anymore, I suppose it’s related to how individualistic we have become, so self-important and yet self-isolated. We don’t want people, strangers, in our business even if it’s just to wish us well.
And to say “God bless you” of course implies something about faith. While we no longer believe that the devil gets in you when you sneeze, most people no longer want to bring any kind of religious remark into casual conversation. As they say, “them’s fighting words” when you start to bring up matters of faith. It takes the whole political correctness business too far.
Whether you and I believe in the same God/god isn’t the issue. If I say “God bless you” to someone, I hope they would take it as a word of kindness, peace and grace. It recognizes the humanity we share. I liken it to saying “namaste”- the spirit in me recognizes the spirit in you. On the one hand we talk about matters of faith all the time because they are the cause of so much that happens in our world, but once you bring it down to a more personal level it loses the sense of “otherness” and becomes “my personal and private business, which is none of your business unless I’m telling you what to believe.”
So- why do we still say “bless you”? For those who say it, it’s habit, custom, tradition, local culture. It is benevolence and kindness at its simplicity. I wish we said it more. Imagine if we said it and meant it in more instances? A cough? A trip on the carpet? A stumble when the door slips? As a greeting? We could bring back some of the kindness and civility that is lacking in current American culture.