As I made my way out of Christianity and into the real world, it became important to me to shed the habits that no longer reflected my beliefs. Some things were easy, even pleasant to relinquish, stuff like reading the Old Testament, judging my neighbor, or trying to teach my scientist-child that Jonah really did live in the belly of a fish for three days. (Fail.) But there were other, more subtle habits that were harder to remove or replace. The Christian habit I have struggled most to let go of is language, peppering my everyday conversation with religious jargon.
First of all, does it even matter? What’s a little Christianese going to harm anyone, an I’m praying this or a thank God for that? On the other hand, I am proud to belong to a generation that is powerfully resisting language and icons that no longer reflect our ideals, manifesting in the removal of such offenses as Confederate statues and gender-specific work titles. It is a constant uphill battle to carefully refine our own integrity and reflect it in our culture, our art, and our language.
I spent some time dwelling on the importance of words. Words are powerful, and their implications often speak volumes. For example, the cringe-worthy beat a dead horse suggests that it’s useful and acceptable to beat a live horse. Or the seemingly benign actress, which originally had an unsavory connotation, having its roots in a time period when the profession was restricted to men and boys. There are also words that no longer accurately reflect our culture, such as derogatory terms that reflect racism in American history. I realized that it is the unspoken history behind language that truly speaks and can shape our society for the better or the worse. I decided to do my part to remove words that were irrelevant and misrepresentative of my moral code. I would start with the top dog, a sneaky little guy called Thank God.
Thank God is a useless interjection, often found in the middle of sentence. I caved and ate more pizza, but thank God I had my fat pants on. Sometimes it kicks off a sentence. (Please note: possible earworm ahead.) Thank God kids stopped walking around singing “Let it Go” all day. Or it can be a standalone wrap-up to a thought, like a gaudy artist’s superfluous flair. Pumpkin-flavored everything is back, starting today. Thank God. The phrase gives undue gratitude to a magic guy in the sky when things go well, or even when things go as they should, as in Thank God it’s Friday. I mean, if yesterday was Thursday…but whatever. I’m all about feeling gratitude. It’s a wonderful emotion and should be shared. It was an easy fix for me. I now replace every temptation to use the phrase thank God, with a simple thankfully. It works quite well.
A little trickier was I have faith that. I wrestled with this because, upon initial assessment, it felt more decisive and empowering than replacement phrases like here’s hoping, or fingers crossed. But no matter how I used it, the phrase misrepresented what I actually felt. I have faith that things will turn out well implied that I was trusting some supernatural force to work everything to my ultimate benefit. What I really meant was, I’m working hard to get through this, and I’m confident I’ll make the best of my situation. When I said I have faith that you’ll make the right decision, I appeared dismissive of someone’s anxiety over a decision, trusting that some spiritual entity had it all mapped out already. A simple whatever decision you make, I’m here to support you, changes the entire sentiment. With this phrase, I am acknowledging the person’s struggle, their right to make their own decision, and my commitment to stand by them. When I said I have faith that I won’t eat too much pizza, what I really meant was I’d better wear my fat pants. (See above.) It turns out that it has been worth the time and effort I’ve put into finding phrases that more precisely reflect who I am and what I believe. I am able to use my language to empower myself and those around me.
Just when I was feeling great about my intentional relinquishing of all things Christianese, someone sneezed.
Oh, the horror of an awkward post-sneeze silence! What would I say? What could I do?
Saying God bless you goes back to the early superstitious beliefs that evil spirits or the plague could overtake a person if they sneezed and that they needed God’s protection. In other words, saying God bless you to someone today means you are disregarding 2,000 years of medical advancements, the life work of scientists like Alexander Fleming, Edward Jenner, and Marie Curie, as well as the body’s incredible ability to heal itself, and suggesting that if God doesn’t step in after every single sneeze, the sneezer might be ravished by demons and deadly plagues. Somehow that feels more like a curse than a blessing!
I didn’t think divorcing God from bless you made enough of a splash. I tried my sister’s version, sorry you sneezed. I love it when she says it, but it didn’t feel authentic to me. I wasn’t sorry they sneezed. Not at all. Sneezing feels good and rids the body of toxins (albeit into my space bubble, for which I might be somewhat sorry.) My daughter uses you scared me. But that’s because I sneeze very, very loudly. It didn’t seem appropriate to use that with the general public, what with having to explain why I say it. I wasn’t even sure why anything needed to be said. After all, I don’t jump in when strangers cough or burp to bestow random blessings on them. Was it the cultural norm, throughout the world, to acknowledge a sneeze?
I hopped on Google and found out that almost every language had a phrase to utter after a sneeze. Some were very religious, like the Bengali may Allah have mercy on you, the Mongolian may God forgive you, or Jesus in Catalan. Others take a more spiritually-neutral approach, like the Danish may it help, the Italian Health, and the Nepali may you live long. One thing is certain: something has to be said, or I will be little more than a cultural pariah.
How can I fill the silence after a sneeze, while truthfully reflecting my moral code? Do you have any suggestions for me? If so, please comment! Have a wonderful week, my readers.