It is a major flu season. Local pharmacies are running out of the flu vaccine. There is a high probability that you just sneezed in the last few hours. If you just sneezed, something was probably irritating or tickling the inside of your nose. And if you just did a typical sneeze, it probably just traveled 100 m.p.h. and spewed countless germs into the air. And wherever it is that those landed, the accompanying viruses survive much longer on objects than originally thought. Eeew. Sneezing is all the rage but besides making you contort your body in dastardly ways, what else does a sneeze bring and signal?
This past week, in what has been labeled as “weird news” a young woman in the United Kingdom was left disabled after she sneezed and as such she is suing the National Health Service (NHS). Huh? Ok. She is suing because she claims the doctors misdiagnosed her spinal condition that left her vulnerable to becoming disabled through a sneeze. As an FYI, the NHS is the shared name of three of the four publicly funded healthcare systems in the United Kingdom. Here in the United States that is referred to as socialized medicine. See what happens when you get universal coverage—sneezes run amok! I say this tongue in cheek, folks. But it is the type of headline that is probably running somewhere out there. I remember reading somewhere that a young mother was left deaf in one ear because of the kiss her daughter gave her on her ear. See the kiss on the ear created a massive vacuum. The sneeze in this case just brought to light the spinal condition she had. Now, for the most part sneezes are related to nasal irritant. However, there is a weird type of sneeze that has little to do with nasal irritants. There is, what is called, the photic sneeze. Looking at bright light stimulates the optic nerve to send a signal to the trigeminal nerve, which is thought to be the nerve responsible for sending a signal to create a sneeze. This is not typical. The optic nerve is not supposed to send a signal to the trigeminal nerve. I cannot even imagine what that is like to sneeze as a result of the sun. Could this be a precursor to vampirism? Sneezing can seem so mundane but there is a whole fascinating mythic underbelly to it.
Why do we as a whole say “Bless you” or “God Bless you” after someone sneezes, even if we do not know them? Growing up, I was taught that when someone sneezed their heart stopped for a millisecond. Consequently, I was totally freaked out as a kid as I had asthma and was allergic to dustmites and all sorts of pollens. Looking back now, to me it doesn’t seem to make much sense to tell people that live in a community riddled with asthmatics that sneezing causes a heart to stop. But apparently, through the ages, this has been a common myth. Thus, one would say “God bless you” in order to revive the heart. I did hear of other “bless you” stories back when I was a young impressionable Puerto Rican girl. There was the story that when you sneeze your soul is ejected out forcefully although some felt that a sneeze was the way that the body protected the soul from invading evil spirits. Either way, by saying “bless you” one could protect the body and soul from evil forces. It does seem that a sneeze is to be taken seriously. Despite the more otherworldly, demonic explanations for a sneeze and the ensuing “bless you,” there is a wide belief that the custom of saying “God bless you” actually originated when the bubonic plague was closing in on Rome and many saw sneezing as a harbinger of the plague. At that point Pope Gregory in 590AD uttered “God Bless You” as a way to halt the plague’s progression. That’s as good as any other explanation.
Along with its mythical associations, sneezes can bring to light underlying conditions and can set in motion vast new events. For example, the sneeze is a very important part of cinematic and romantic relationship history. Let me explain.
Have you heard of Fred Ott? Have you heard of Fred Ott’s Sneeze? I bet you have heard of his boss Thomas Edison who captured one of Fred Ott’s sneezes on film making it the first motion picture to be copyrighted in the United States. It is officially known as “Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze” but it is most often referred to as Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It is an 1894 American, short, black-and-white, silent documentary film of five seconds in length. It was also one of the top films of 1894. Fred Ott went on to hold a bird for the next documentary short.
In various other television shows, movies and theatrical productions, a sneeze has played a role in propelling the storyline forward. For example, in the television show “Smallville”, Clark Kent develops his first cold causing him to sneeze a grand sneeze that brings with it a new power: super breath! In the play “The Sneeze” by Michael Frayn a life-shattering sneeze leads to a “Chekhovian” world gone amok, awry, and askew. Don’t think it is in production anymore but if you can ever catch it do so.
But my favorite movie role for a sneeze was that in the movie “Singles.” The movie was released in 1992 and was set in the Seattle grunge era where a bunch of twenty-year olds were trying to figure life out amidst all their grungy ennui. I loved the film back then. I have not watched it in over a decade so I don’t have a real sense if it still holds up. What does work for me though is the love test Bridget Fonda’s character uses that involves the sneeze. Throughout the whole film she has a crush on Matt Dillon’s character and he appears to take her for granted. Until the very end of the film (spoiler alert ahead) where when she sneezes, he says “bless you.” At that point we are left to ponder the meaning of the sneeze and their happily-ever-after. In this modern day, where not many hold car doors open anymore; where people rush to eat before everyone gets served; where people don’t readily give up a seat to a pregnant woman on the 4 train (ahem), a “bless you” can take on a whole other meaning. It doesn’t have to be about pushing the evil spirits away or hoping you don’t get the plague. A sneeze followed by a “bless you” at the end of the day is a simple acknowledgment of human presence.
So, as the flu worsens here is a pre-emptive Salud, Gesundheit, Bless you.