Bless You?

I think we should be mindful with language, to know what we are saying before we speak. Everybody knows that words are more powerful than sticks and stones despite the schoolyard litany to the contrary. Bones mend, and if you think that words cannot kill you, then the lessons of history have been lost on you.

Leaving aside the deadly uses of language, what do we know about the words we use daily without thinking? Words of greeting: Good Morning, How are you, Have a nice day, Bless you.

Greetings and salutations. Hello and to your health. Friendly, with meaning only so far as to say, I’m not going to pull out a knife and kill you actually or metaphorically, and whether or not we mean to be friendly when we make the greeting is not the point. How often are we thinking about  how much we would like the stranger or friend we are greeting to have a good morning? How would we know what a good morning would look like to them? How often do we really want to hear a report of someone’s condition when we query, how are you? Have a nice day– nice, not spectacular, nice as if that is the best we can hope for or are willing to confer upon another.

Bless you? Ah, now there’s a greeting, a salutation that carries a lot of baggage. This one is doing more than saying, “I’m not going to kill you”. This one is an identifier. It says, “I’m Christian”. The person offering the greeting may indeed want to confer the blessings of God upon the friend or stranger or they may just want to make a statement about their own identity.

I’m thinking there are very many folk out there bringing down the blessings of God upon their fellow human beings who have not really examined the meaning of the word bless.  Lately, I’ve been studying French and reading French news on the net. Lots of these news stories involve, as one would expect, events wherein persons meet with unexpected death or are wounded, injured as a result of some calamity. Tuer, to kill. Mort, death. Blessé, injured. Interesting.

Look up the etymology of  that word, bless and you find that it is sanguine. All about blood and sacrifice. To be blessed is to bleed in the cause of something. A word like this is beautifully ambiguous. To be blessed by God could mean to be wounded by contact and that wound could be the sign of your state of grace. Holy wounds. Like the Moravians who became obssessively focused on the wounds of Jesus. Like stigmata.

But over time, as the experience of being human in the English speaking world  becomes ever more removed from danger, as death withdraws to a safer distance, we lose contact with the sanguine element of blessing.

To invoke blessing becomes less about the blood of Jesus and the life of the spirit and more about removing obstacles that stand between ourselves and what we want. And also about revealing our own sanctimony.  Who stops to consider whether or not the recipient of the invocation has any interest in the blessing? Like a spell being cast, an unsolicited prayer may be perceived as unauthorized interference.


A man with a gun walks into a town hall session in a parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. He kills six people among them a judge, a child, a politician’s staffer, an elderly man, he seriously wounds a US Congresswoman. He is driven by some terrible certainty,  or some incomprehensible logic, or cognitive dysfunction, or insanity. Within hours, as the investigation unfolds, it becomes known that his behavior grew increasingly bizarre over the months preceding this action. It is also apparant that he planned to kill the representative. He took time to buy a gun, to buy ammunition, to say goodbye on Facebook.

Will we find out that he was an unhappy child, that he suffered bullying or other abuse? Or will we find out that he was quiet, a loner, or that he was popular and outgoing? Will we find out that he was indistinguishable from thousands of other children and only grew into unreason as an adult? I’m not sure it matters what we find out about him.

What we find out about ourselves is more important and has more potential to impact our world, our country, our communities. The man with the gun will be tried, judged, and sentenced. His power is spent, his day is done.

Has the event frightened people? Is that why we hear people voicing so much violence as they describe what should be done to the shooter? Fear is often masked by bravado, hatred, violence. So maybe that is what it is. Millions of terrified people. But I don’t think so. I really don’t. What I hear in their words is that they have identified their target, just as the shooter identified his. There was something wrong he thought he could make right by killing a particular person in a very public and deliberate way. He had his target. Now he is the target. He is the thing that can be destroyed in order to make things right again. There is something primal about this. A sacrifice must be made.

We scent the air for blood. Our noses twitching our hands reaching for the stones. Except that the rule of law stands between us and our bloodlust. All we can do, the most we can do is envision the horrible things that ought to be done to the shooter and seize the opportunity to broadcast our ultimate solution. And for some, for many, the vision and the chant will elicit glee, for some the pleasure will arouse.

A few, too few, will witness this mob madness with dismay, despairing that humanity will not ever rise above its baser instincts, that as a species, we will never learn how to reason. We hear Gandhi say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and then we pluck out eyes with greedy abandon. Gandhi was wrong. The whole world is already blind. We are blind people grasping at the blind eyes of our neighbors, groping in darkness afraid of the intolerable light just beyond our cave.