Monday, August 5, 2013

Bless You!

What should you say when someone sneezes?  I've been pondering this for years.  Here are my reflections on that, by way of thinking about foreign-language pedagogy, and about what it means to bless someone:

The Emperor Charles V reportedly said that as many languages as a man knows, that many times over is he a man.  I don't know if that's true, but in high school I took courage from it.  I was athletic, but lean, with a great build for biking and running, but too slender to be considered dangerously manly.  My only formal sports were swimming and ultimate frisbee.  I loved skiing and hiking and rock-climbing, but the more I exercised, the leaner I got.  There was no chance I'd ever become a star athlete, and I think that realization saved me from trying to become what I was not.  Although I didn't know Emerson's writing back then, I nevertheless arrived at an Emersonian conclusion: there are as many kinds of manliness, and courage, as there are men and women to embody them.  Emerson puts it like this:
“It is he only who has labor, and the spirit to labor, because courage sees: he is brave, because he sees the omnipotence of that which inspires him. The speculative man, the scholar, is the right hero. Is there only one courage, and one warfare? I cannot manage sword and rifle; can I not therefore be brave? I thought there were as many courages as men. Is an armed man the only hero? Is a man only the breech of a gun, or the hasp of a bowie-knife? Men of thought fail in fighting down malignity, because they wear other armour than their own.” -- R.W. Emerson, Commencement Address given at Middlebury College on July 22, 1845, in Emerson At Middlebury College, Robert Buckeye, ed. (Middlebury, Vermont: Friends of the Middlebury College Library, 1999), p. 39.
So I threw myself into doing what I was made to do with joy, and to living a brave life in my own way.  Some people find learning a foreign language terrifying; I do not.  I'm one of those people blessed with an unusual ability to learn foreign languages quickly and with little effort.  When I'm around a new language, I listen to its music and its rhythms and make them my own, and I begin to take apart the language as I hear it, so I can think with it, and watch its parts move.  And I ask a lot of questions: How do you say this in your language?  What does this mean?  When do you say that?

This turns out to be a good way to learn one's own language, too.  Not everything can be translated, and when you find something in your native tongue that's hard to say in another language, you've found something that is a unique possession of the speakers of your language.  Or when you learn that one word in your language takes many forms in another language, you begin to see how your cultural heritage has come equipped with some blind spots.  The same is true of grammar, of inflection, of syntax, and so on.

So learning another language is not simply a matter of replacing one vocabulary with another.  Learning a language means learning a culture, a history, a literature.

(This is why language-learning software can help, but it's not enough, and it's no substitute for excellent teachers and for studying abroad.)

In middle school, as I was trying to actualize all my potential and to become as many men as I could be, I spent a lot of time learning basic phrases and grammar in other languages.  How do you greet someone in this language?  How do you say goodbye?  How do you ask for what you want?  These tend to be fairly straightforward in the languages I studied.

But some phrases were harder.  How do you say "Please"?  That word is, after all, a contraction of a whole clause, "If it please you," with a subjunctive verb.  It's not like a name for an object or a place, which might be easily translated; it's a way of calling on a whole tradition of regarding the wishes of others as important - or at least, of pretending to honor those wishes.  Now, most of the languages I studied had simple ways of saying "please," but along the way I discovered that not all English speakers consider "please" to be correct.  Some religious communities, for instance, regard such words as unnecessary; we should be willing to give what we're asked for without demanding that the other regard our wishes as important, they reason.

Modern saints at Westminster Abbey; Their stories are a blessing.
Another phrase similarly exposed something about cultures: what do you say when someone sneezes?  In many languages, the answer is that you say "Your health!"  Many English speakers I know use the German Gesundheit without knowing that this is what they are saying, in another language.  That's fascinating: we feel the need to say something, even if we don't know what the word means.

When I first met my frosh college roommate, Nick, he sneezed.  I said the customary thing: "Bless you!"  He looked at me oddly, and didn't say anything.  Over the coming weeks, I repeated the phrase each time he sneezed.  Finally, he asked me "Why do you keep saying that?"  I realized I hadn't any better answer than to say that's what I heard others do.  His question got me wondering why we acknowledge sneezes.    

After all, we don't say something to accompany other bodily functions, do we?  Is there a stock phrase for hiccups, or burps?  For a rumbling belly?  A cough?  A yawn?

Over the years, it started to bother me that others felt the need to comment on my sneezes.  When I ask people why they do it, I usually get some lame reply about how it's because long ago people believed that sneezes were a sign of some dangerous spiritual or physical ailment; or that it had to do with fear of the Black Plague; or that it was a response to the fear that sneezes were signs of demonic possession; and in any case, sneezes needed to be countered with blessings.

Okay, fine. I'll let the Middle Ages off the hook next time they bless my sneezing.  But why do YOU do it?  The answer seems to be cultural habit.  It's not a necessity of nature, but something we've made ourselves do until we've forgotten why we do it.  It's a thoughtless reflex, and I think this is what annoys me.

Now, after years of being a curmudgeon and a grouch about this, I'm starting to reconsider my objection to these responses to my sternutations.  On the one hand, these blessings are thoughtless, and they demand a reply of "thank you" when frankly, I'm still recovering from a sneeze and would rather not say anything.  On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn't want fewer blessings in our lives, but more of them, or at least more sincere ones.

As I think back over my life, I've received these blessings often from strangers on a bus or a subway, or in a park in a foreign city.  People who do not know me stop their activity to speak a word of blessing into my life, to look me in the eye and put into simple words their wishes for my good health.

Speaking does not make things so, not instantly, anyway.  But putting things into words is nevertheless very powerful.  I'm not talking magic here; I'm talking about the way our words affect ourselves and others.  Naming is powerful.  When our inarticulate anger or frustration evolves into naming someone as the one who needs to be punished, the person becomes a criminal, something less than a person.  The greater the crime, the lesser the human.  Because naming is powerful, cursing is powerful.  Which is why I taught my kids that it's not words that are bad, but the uses of words.

And if history teaches us anything at all, it shows us how easy we find it to curse others, to come up with simple, curt, dehumanizing names for entire classes of others.  We find it easy not to look others in the eye but to look no further than the skin, or to look through others as though they were not there.  We find it easy to curse those who live across borders of towns and nations, those who drive in front of us or behind us, those whose faces we never see and whom we know only through a few words we've read online.

In light of that, I suppose that if you want to bless me--indeed, if you find it hard not to bless me--that should be a welcome thing.  Just give me a minute to recover from my sneeze before I thank you.  And may you be blessed, too.

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