* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, February 29, 2016

Bold Honesty, Part 3

Just as it's important to be boldly honest about what you really care about, it's important to be boldly honest about our answers to some other questions, especially the questions Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? and Where do I find authentic community? When we aren't honest about what we really want from community, we wind up in places that aren't authentic for us, where we don't feel like we genuinely belong. When we adopt other people's ideas about what we should want, we aren't likely to get what we actually want and need.

It may be that what you really want from community is to be told what to think and believe so you don't have to think for yourself. If that's what you want, be honest about that. Other people may criticize you -- hell, I may criticize that desire -- but it's better for you to be honest about what you actually want rather than pretend someone else's expectations are your own. There are plenty of places where you can be told what to believe and where you'll be discouraged from thinking for yourself, so one advantage is that your desire for community will be easily satisfied.

There's a challenge even in those communities, though, because many times people want to pretend that they are being intellectually honest when they're actually being quite lazy in their thinking. Some people feel some shame about just wanting to be told what to think and believe, so they pretend that they are making rational, well-thought-out decisions. Some people don't want to be seen as stupid or foolish, so they pretend to have rational reasons for believing irrational things. People even make up evidence (read: lie) in order to make the irrational seem rational.

People say, "Prayer works!" instead of saying, "I just prefer to believe that my prayers have some effect on my relative's illness because otherwise I would feel powerless and grief-stricken. By pretending that I'm doing something useful and meaningful, I feel less anxiety." It's tough for one person to keep up the pretense that prayer has an effect on external reality, but when an entire community repeats an irrational assertion over an over again, it can almost seem rational. OK, not "almost". People literally brainwash themselves into believing something irrational. Despite documented research that suggests that prayer has either no effect or a negative effect on the health of a patient, many people still prefer to pray rather than feel helpless. 

Bold honesty can come into play at so many different points in this process. And the outcome doesn't even have to change just because people are boldly honest. People could be honest about their community and admit, "What we say here doesn't actually line up with reality, but it makes me happy, and I prefer being happy." Or people could say, "I don't really believe this, but I like the people here, so I'm going to pretend that I agree with them." That level of honesty would probably stop inside a person's head, but imagine the effect on a community if just one person came out and said, "What we say here doesn't actually make any sense, but I feel happy when I say it. So I'm going to pretend that it makes sense." If what you want from community is for people to reinforce an unreasonable belief that you have the power to alter reality through your intention and words (or your "faith"), be boldly honest that that's what you really want.

When we listen to the rhetoric of some political and religious spokespeople, we hear blatant lies about public figures, about history, and about supernaturals. Many people are fine with those lies, because the lies match the way they choose to see the world. I know that it's a lie, for instance, that LGBT people are going to hell. For one thing, hell isn't real. For another thing, a lot of LGBT folks are already going through hell just to exist. Some people prefer to believe that their imagined supernatural hates gay people, and is going to punish them for eternity (loving supernatural that it is). 

They may say trite things like, "Love the sinner, hate the sin," and they may say that their love for the LGBT community is why they fund the psychological torture known as conversion therapy (now, reparative therapy). The truth is that they prefer to pretend certain things about reality, and they prefer to indulge their fear of people who aren't like them. Say so. If you want to participate in a community that either overtly or subtly rejects, persecutes, and marginalizes people who identify as LGBT, be honest. Just say, "I don't understand gay people, and I don't want to take the time to understand them. I prefer to think that they're going to burn in hell than think that they are human beings with inherent worth and dignity." Don't make things up about what your supernatural thinks, because you couldn't know that even if there was supernatural to know something about. Be boldly honest about what you actually know and want, and own it.

Now, I know you probably read all of that as being a bit of a rant, and that's fine. The point is that there's no reason to pretend to have noble reasons for wanting what you want. There's no reason to pretend that there's evidence for something just because you want to believe it. Some people may see this as a postmodern nightmare of making truth so relative that it has no meaning, but let me be clear: I'm not saying that just because you want prayer to work, that means it's true for you. The true part is that you want prayer to work, and you're willing to pretend that it does even though you have no falsifiable, replicable evidence. I'm not saying that for some people it's true that LGBT folks are evil. I'm saying that it's true that some folks prefer to believe that LGBT people are evil. If we can get to that level of honesty about the difference between what we know and what we prefer to believe, we will have made great strides forward as a species.

This all works the other way, too. If you can be boldly honest about what you actually want from meaningful, authentic community, you'll be more likely to find it. A community that lies to you is not authentic, and you won't find a genuine sense of belonging there, unless you honestly want to be lied to. If you want to be in community with people who allow you to express what you believe and accept you openly as your authentic self, be boldly honest about that being what you want. Don't settle for a community where you have to hide who you are just to be around people who seem nice and treat you kindly. It is not nice or kind for people to insist that you believe as they do and encourage you to hide who you are. Keep looking. Now, perhaps more than ever before, there are places where you can find genuine belonging -- not just a sense that if you play by the rules and pretend to be just like everyone else, you can get a false feeling of acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as approval for doing what someone else wants you to do.

I spent years of my life pretending to be something I wasn't because Christian churches paid me well as a musician, but I couldn't safely say, "I don't believe most of this stuff you sing about and teach, and I actually think a lot of it is harmful." People thought I was wonderful, as long as I pretended to believe what they believed. Their acceptance of me shifted sharply when they learned otherwise. If I am boldly honest, I sometimes even wonder whether my level of atheism and Humanism is welcome in a Unitarian Universalist context. There are so many options for atheists and Humanists to find community now -- authentic community where they are not only accepted as they really are, but encouraged to be even better versions of who they really are. So many churches encourage people to be better versions of who the church says people are supposed to be. Don't settle for that unless it's what you actually honestly want.

If you want to find a genuine sense of belonging, be boldly honest about who you are and find the people who receive you without reservation. They exist. If you want to find authentic community, be boldly honest about what you want. Some folks may want to echo Kennedy and say, "Ask not what your community can do for you; ask what you can do for your community," but I've found that people who are nurtured by their community wind up giving back to that community. It really is alright to start off by asking, "Where do I find community that actually meets my needs?" 

And please, please, please: be boldly honest about what you prefer to believe. Don't shore up your irrational preferences with false data or made-up anecdotes. Just be boldly honest about your biases and prejudices. Be boldly honest about what makes you feel safe and happy. Too much time is spent arguing nonsense with one another, when we could just be honest and say, "This is what I prefer to believe, despite any evidence to the contrary." At the very least, it will make for a more honest world. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Bold Honesty Part 2

Seriously considering what you actually care about most can be challenging. Previously, we recognized that it helps to spend enough time asking yourself why you care about what you think you care about in order to get to the most solid foundation. Sometimes it even helps to talk through things with someone else who can respond with open and detached curiosity. (It isn't as helpful to have a conversation with someone who has a tendency to be closed-minded and judgmental.) When what you care about seems not to be life-affirming, you can ask yourself what you're afraid of, work to dismantle irrational fears, and dig deeper to get to what really matters most to you.

Even when we get past the temptation to run what we most deeply want through an "acceptability filter", and we're able to say what we really care about with clarity, our ever-active anxious minds can still give us reasons to hesitate. Sometimes we second-guess and question our passions before we even have a chance to be boldly honest about them. Other times, we test the waters of bold honesty about what we want with someone and our first attempt receives a less-than-satisfying response. So we keep what we most want to ourselves, out of shame or fear, which means much less of a chance to create something meaningful.

A little bit of inward questioning is helpful. That's how we're able to dig deeper and get to the heart of what we really care about. It's important for us to ask ourselves, "Is this life-affirming? Or is this coming from some anxiety or fear I need to deal with?" Our minds ask other questions, though, and some of these inner questions hinder our ability to live into our deepest values. We second-guess ourselves in multiple ways, but two common ways we sabotage ourselves are through thinking our deepest desires are too small or too big for us to care about. Both of these tap into our tendency to feel shame, and as Brene Brown has pointed out in a number of books and TED talks, shame is a destructive force that limits our ability to live authentically.

We might think what we care about is too small and insignificant for us to take pride in. We might feel ashamed that our personal creative life dream isn't big and dramatic and world-changing. All around us we see stories of people accomplishing incredible things. The role-models we have for living into a compelling vision for our lives are people who make international headlines or change thousands of lives. Our deepest life-affirming desire might seem much less significant by comparison -- maybe only affecting our neighborhood or one community. 

What we fail to realize is that any life-affirming vision we cast for our lives is going to have a positive influence on the world around us. We know that our actions have ripples -- that what we do has an impact on people we never meet. And yet, when we allow our minds to drag us into (inaccurate) shame about how little and insignificant our goals are, we forget all about how much of our influence is unseen. We may never know how our life-affirming actions in one small part of the world influence an entire system toward greater wholeness. The point is not that we make a big splash, the point is just that we get in the water. If everyone in the world decided to live with greater intentionality and chose one "small" and accessible life-affirming purpose to live into, humanity would thrive like never before. Your job isn't to find a way to change the world. Your job is just to live into your life-affirming values in a way that is deeply meaningful to you. And that begins with bold honesty about what you really care about most. There is no personal life dream that is too small. Everyone who lives on purpose makes a difference in the world.

Our shame is similarly evoked when we dream big, except that instead of being ashamed that our vision is not enough to make a difference, we become ashamed that we are not enough to make a difference. This is also a lie. When we get really honest about what we want for our lives and for the world, we may come up with a mammoth-sized creative life dream. We may realize that what we really care about means enormous change for a huge number of people. We may need allies and collaborators. We may need to learn things we don't yet know and develop skills we don't yet possess. Shame will knock us back from the threshold. Shame will convince us that we can't possibly do what we most want to do, so we'll just have to settle for a life of being less than our dreams. Which means not living into our values because where our values lead us is too scary. If we can be boldly honest about our big, daunting dreams for the world, though, we may find we aren't the only ones who are committed to dreaming big.

"Scary" and shame are partners in all of this. Our shame is actually a very clever defense mechanism to keep us safe. It's a survival trait that kicks in when what we may want to do seems dangerous. We don't need our shame when we are living into a bold creative purpose, but because we feel anxious about jumping in the deep end, our shame tries to convince us to stay out of the water entirely. Our shame tries to keep us safe by making sure we never take a risk. No risk equals maximum safety. Except that change requires a bit of risk, even when it's positive change. Living into a personal creative life dream requires vulnerability, even when it's an amazing and inspiring vision. 

If our shame wins, we get to feel safe and unfulfilled. If we push past our shame and let our deepest life-affirming values guide us instead, we get to feel vulnerable and fully alive. Believing that what we most deeply want is too small or too big to share honestly with anyone else will mean that we never risk the possibility of having what we want. How crazy is that? That we would know exactly what we want, and never risk having it? That's the survival purpose of shame. Our primitive brain equates less risk with greater chance of survival. But shame is not a separate intelligence guiding our lives and trying to keep us safe. Our shame doesn't know anything we don't know. Our shame is not the voice of a supernatural trying to direct our actions. It's just leftover thought routines we don't need. 

Once we know what our deepest life-affirming values are, and once we are willing to live intentionally with integrity to those values, shame is useless to us. Our guiding principles may not always make us feel completely safe, but they will help us take meaningful risks. Our life-affirming values can keep us focused on the kind of person we most want to be, so that the risks we take are part of living into a bolder vision for our lives. We are fueled and empowered by our willingness to be boldly honest about what our deepest life-affirming values inspire us to create.

One last little piece of this part of the conversation: Other people will sometimes try to take the place of our shame voice. When we are boldly honest, other people -- without meaning harm -- may not have the kind of inspiring and encouraging response we hope for. They may want us to back down from a big creative life dream. Or they may try to convince us that what we want is insignificant and not worth pursuing. They will probably think that they are helping us by "talking sense into us" or by "giving us a dose of reality." And there are times when we certainly need other people to help us clarify what we most deeply want. Sometimes our initial exploration of dreaming big really is unrealistic and could use a little honing. Sometimes, though, people are unconsciously prompted to convince, compel, or coerce us into staying safe -- remaining right where we are and not taking unnecessary risks. This isn't always helpful.

So, as we become willing to be boldly honest about what we most want to create in our lives and in the world around us, it's important for us to listen openly to multiple voices. One person trying to shame us into giving up on what we most deeply want shouldn't deter us from living into a creative life dream with intention and integrity. Seven people warning us that there are some challenges we aren't considering, however, can help us become clearer about how we can realistically cast vision in our lives in alignment with our deepest life-affirming values. When people's feedback sounds like our own internal shame voice, it's worth acknowledging that their own anxiety and fear may be more important to them than your vision for your life or for the world. When people listen deeply to your own bold honesty and their words help you dig more deeply into how you can live into your deepest values, you may have gained a powerful ally or collaborator. 

This all means that part of bold honesty is also being willing to listen carefully to the responses we receive -- internally and externally. Our own shame voice will try to keep us safe, but we are capable of being guided by our deepest life-affirming values instead. Other people may try to keep us safe, too. Or they may be inspired by our bold honesty about what we most deeply want. Or they may not have much of a response to us at all. It's important that we listen carefully and thoughtfully. And it's vital that we maintain connection to our life-affirming values -- our internal guidance system --  as we clarify what we care about most and become more fully alive.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bold Honesty, Part 1

So many of our important questions require the willingness to be boldly honest about what really matters to us. Honesty is essential when we consider how we can be satisfied with the way we influence the world around us, or how to connect our passions with creating greater wholeness, or how to get what we most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater well-being.

Often we filter what we care about most deeply through an "acceptability test," deciding whether what we want sounds acceptable to other people. The criteria of what we think might be acceptable varies from person to person, and are often based on belief systems that were imposed on us. Whatever the criteria, though, this kind of filtering keeps us from honestly expressing what we most deeply want, which means that we have very little chance of connecting what we care about to creating wholeness in our lives and the world around us.

One filter I often hear people using is whether something appears in a particular religious text or is endorsed by a religious community. "Feeding the hungry is highly regarded by my faith community, and my 'scripture' considers it laudable, so it seems safe for me to really care about feeding the hungry." This is fine if your actual passion is ensuring that everyone has enough food, but the filter isn't necessary. If you really care about feeding people, you don't need the endorsement of a religious text or community to live into that passion for the hungry. Moreover, some religious communities decide that only certain hungry people are worth feeding, or they decide that feeding the hungry is a means to an end of promoting their particular set of myths. This turns hungry people into targets for proselytization and makes them the victims of the people doing the feeding. It isn't really caring to insist that hungry people listen to your beliefs -- or worse, profess to agree with your beliefs -- before they receive the food they need.

There's another problem with allowing a religious text or community to be a filter through which you judge what you care about. You may care about transgender people, and yet your religious text says nothing about transgender people (although people in your religious community will probably find ways to interpret your religious text so that it seems to). People in many religious communities are opposed to the existence of transgender people. So your personal reasons for caring about a marginalized group of people -- who have an acute need for acceptance and care -- are potentially trumped by outdated and fear-driven religious beliefs. If you just told the truth that you care about something -- or a group of people -- very deeply, it would be much easier to see how that care can lead to creating greater wholeness and well-being.

Religions with exclusive beliefs (i.e., you have to believe what we believe in order to go to heaven, or be a good person, or exist) are by definition anti-equality. If a group of people believes that their group deserves special treatment, in real life or in an imaginary afterlife, they cannot simultaneously believe in equality. This is why religious people often seem threatened by demands for equal treatment by marginalized people: Equality for all means the loss of religious privilege, which in the U. S. means Christian privilege. One cannot truly create wholeness in the world and cling to an exclusivist belief system that withholds compassion and care from people who believe something different. If you are honest about what you care about most deeply, you have a better chance of seeing how it connects with creating wholeness in the world.

Why am I being so anti-religious? Why can't I just write about being honest about how our deepest values connect to creating wholeness? Because it's a real challenge to be honest about what you care about most deeply when so many loud religious voices call equality evil. It's a real challenge to be honest about creating wholeness when so many loud religious voices promote an idea of inherent brokenness. It's a real challenge to be honest about what you value when so many loud religious voices are shouting about what you should value, based on their own strangely-filtered view of the world. Being honest about what you care about isn't always easy, but it is essential to being satisfied with how you influence the world around you.

Some people run into another challenge when they start being honest about what really matters to them, though. Their first honest statements might be fueled by fears they've been carrying around about themselves or other people, and what they think they care about is an expression of that anxiety. Perhaps you think that what you care about most is just that your child gets a good education and a decent job. Or perhaps you think that what you care about most is that the property value of your home stays high, so you think you're against certain kinds of people moving into your neighborhood. Or perhaps you think that what you care about most is proselytizing to everybody you meet so that they have a chance to believe what you believe about imaginary things.

It helps to spend enough time asking yourself why you care about what you think you care about in order to get to the most solid foundation. Sometimes it even helps for someone else to be able to ask you why you care about what you think you care about. When what you care about seems not to be life-affirming, you can ask yourself what you're afraid of, work to dismantle irrational fears, and dig deeper to get to what really matters most to you.

Things like the well-being of your child involve a lot more than selfishly working to make sure they get a better shot at a high-paying career than anybody else's child does. It doesn't create wholeness in anyone's life just to be handed unearned opportunities that they aren't actually prepared to engage responsibly. In fact, fostering authentic well-being in your child's life involves fostering well-being in other people's lives too. Unless you home school your children, groom them to run a family business, and never allow them to meet anyone outside of your isolated community (which may not be a recipe for wholeness), well-being for your children involves well-being in the places where your children learn and play. Caring about your child's well-being ultimately means caring about a neighborhood, or a school, or some environment outside of your family. That doesn't mean that you have to start a non-profit or quit your job to become a full-time volunteer. It just means that you live into your values with a clear sense of connection to the larger world around you.

So, asking why is a powerful tool to help reveal your honest answers as fears or as deep life-affirming values:

I care most deeply about proselytizing to everyone I meet so they can believe in Jesus and go to heaven.
Because if they don't believe in Jesus, they'll go to hell.
That sounds like a fear. 
I mean, because I feel loved and accepted by Jesus and I want other people to feel that too.
So, what you want is for people to feel loved and accepted. Is proselytizing the best way to do that? Or is there an even better way to live into your desire for people to feel loved and accepted?

Maybe you have to ask why several times before you get to something juicy. When you come across a fear, you'll know it because it will not lead to greater well-being for the greatest number of people. Fears may have an Us vs Them component, and fears often crop up when we start thinking outside our comfort zone. Life-affirming values inspire us toward greater wholeness in our own lives and in the lives of people around us. They often allow us to see situations as both/and rather than either/or. The things we care about most deeply may call us toward something bigger than what we can accomplish on our own with our current resources. Or they may simply call us to do exactly what we're already doing, with a different attitude.

Whatever our deepest life-affirming values may be, if we want to connect them to how we can create greater well-being in our lives and in the world around us, we have to be boldly honest about what they are. We have to be able to say out loud to other people, "This is what I care about most deeply." And in order for us to do that, we have to figure it out ourselves, and that can take a bit of work. Many of us are so used to coasting along without giving a lot of thought to where we're headed, the prospect of even having a vision for what we want to create in our lives seems utterly foreign. It's alright to try a few things on before you settle into what really matters most to you.

Next time, we'll explore another challenge to being boldly honest about what you really care about. For now, try a little bold honesty yourself and see what happens.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What Blessing Means

Honesty is a big part of finding a genuine sense of belonging and creating authentic community. Intentional and honest communication helps build authentic connection between people. When we choose to use words that have vague meaning -- especially when we know that other people often mean something different by the words we choose -- we compromise our ability to communicate honestly and clearly. This is why I've written elsewhere that it doesn't make sense to "define the word God however you want to," as some communities suggest, because that word already means something in our language. There are other words that have other meanings, so it makes sense to find some word that actually means what you want to say, clearly and honestly.

Bless is a word that gets a lot of use in American society. We are expected to say, "bless you," when someone sneezes. Someone often offers a public blessing before a dinner or sporting event. When people want to express gratitude, they often say, "bless you," as well. And of course, there are sarcastic uses of the word, like the euphemistic, "bless your heart," when what is really meant is closer to, "I'm baffled by how you even function in the world." An evangelist once quipped that the silence must be deafening when someone sneezes in a room full of atheists, implying that there is no other response to a sneeze other than to offer a theistic comfort. When we set aside sarcasm and consider what we actually mean, though, there may be better choices.

None of this is to imply that we should avoid any word altogether. If we are thoughtful and intentional about what we are saying, every word can be useful. When we are thoughtless or deceptive in some way, we most likely aren't creating the kind of community or world we most value. So, let's explore what the word bless actually means and see if there are other, more accurate ways we might express what we actually mean.

A blessing, by definition, is an appeal for divine approval. Whether it is formulaic or spontaneous, to bless something is to "confer or invoke divine favor." In the case of sneezes, back around 600 CE, a sneeze was thought to be the first sign that someone was infected with a plague, so asking for God to bless an individual who sneezed was, in essence, praying for supernatural aid to make an infected person healthy. In the case of this "Justinian" plague, about half the population of Europe died anyway. Even further back in human history, though, it was believed that the soul vacated the body when a person sneezed. Although it may only be for a brief moment, people feared that demons could enter the vacant, soulless person, so a petition for God to bless a sneezer was intended to attract the supernatural's attention to an imminent threat of demon possession. In this case, it would appear that asking for blessing is quite effective, as no person has ever been objectively demonstrated to be possessed by a demon.

A blessing spoken before a sporting event, on the other hand, is perhaps intended to express gratitude to a supernatural and to appeal to that supernatural for the safety of the players. Oddly, whether or not there are any injuries in the course of the competition seems not to be a reflection on the supernatural in question. A great many Christians in the United States also believe that their god influences the actual outcome of sporting events, so an injury on the other team might be seen as favor from their barbaric divine. Either way, the blessing is an appeal to some external supernatural.

We also sometimes use the word to indicate human approval. When we go to someone and say, "I want your blessing on this plan," we aren't always asking for the other person to invoke divine favor, we just want to know that the person approves of what we want to do. "I give my blessing," expresses one's personal approval. "Lord, give us your blessing," requests approval from a non-entity.

In addition to reflexive answers to sneezes, asking for divine favor, and expressing approval, blessing is also synonymous with conveying gratitude. When I hand food to a panhandler, the response is often, "bless you," or more even more accurately, "God bless you." This always strikes me as odd, that this person who has literally nothing but the clothes on their back, believe that they have the ear of a divine being enough to invoke favor on my life, but not enough for that divine being to meet their actual physical needs. I've decided to believe that these individuals don't actually realize that it would be more appropriate to say what they actually mean, which is, "thank you."

It's the subject of the sentence that makes the whole affair murky. When we say, "bless you," we are actually leaving out the subject of the sentence. It isn't a command, like, "Close the door." When a sentence is a command, the unstated subject is always "you." (You) close the door. But not (You) bless you. The unspoken subject in the case of a blessing is "God." (God) bless you. And I can accept that some people sincerely mean to invoke their imagined supernatural when they offer a blessing, even if I'm confident that their petition isn't being heard by anything superhuman. The problem is that they fail to honestly express what they mean, and that actual human connection suffers as a result.

Human connection may only suffer a little bit in the case of a compulsory sneeze response, but it suffers much more when people are unable or unwilling to vulnerably express gratitude and say, "thank you." Consider the unspoken subject of the sentence, "Thank you." It isn't a command: (You) thank you. That doesn't make any sense. It's actually a very personal expression: (I) thank you. "I feel gratitude for you," must seems worlds more vulnerable than, "May God bless you." When I express my gratitude clearly and honestly, I'm conveying my own emotions, my own connection to you, perhaps even my own need for you as a fellow human being. When I ask that God bless you, it's out of my hands. I don't have to reveal my feelings or my needs. The idea of a god makes a safe and convenient veil behind which people hide their own values and ideas.

Again, if someone has thoughtfully considered what they mean to say and decide that they authentically and sincerely want to request that their deity of choice show favor in a particular situation or on a particular person, the words "(God) bless you," seem quite appropriate, even if they always keep a safe barrier between people. For example, if a principal wants to tell their students, "God bless you," that seems to be an expression of that individual's beliefs and hopes for their students. It's that part that conveniently goes unsaid that bothers me. If a principal hopes for great things in the lives of their students, it's irresponsible to leave it up to a supernatural. Saying, "I will work really hard so that your time in this school prepares you for success in life," is more vulnerable, but it's a much more compelling commitment than, "I hope someone up there is looking out for you, because I don't have a clue how to help you and you kids are just a mess." It's fine to hide behind a theistic veil, but unless some convincing actions accompany that blessing, a blessing in and of itself accomplishes nothing in terms of human well-being.

I contend that when we are grateful, we can tell people that we are grateful.  When we hope for people's safety, we can say, "I care about you and hope you stay safe."  When we want our team to win, we can just say, "I want my team to win."  Even when we choose to be blindly patriotic, we can just say so without making petitions to a supernatural to favor the part of earth we happen to live on more than other people in other parts of the planet we all share.  When we are honest and clear about what we mean to say, we create more authentic connection with the people around us. This is even true of invocations before sporting events or other public celebrations. Rather than "invoking" a supernatural's favor, one can easily invoke a sense of gratitude, and the shared values and common purpose for people to be together. This might be a little more work that a typical "blessing," but saying something meaningful, clear, and honest is worth a little bit of effort.

The real question, though, is: What do we say when someone sneezes if we're trying to be authentic, honest, and clear? The truth is, there are already many other things that people say in response to sneezes that have integrity with their deepest values without invoking anything supernatural. One could take Penn Jillette's approach and say, "That's funny," although some people may not find that particularly connecting. In Spanish, people say salud; in German, people say Gesundheit; and in Irish, people say slรกinte, all of which essentially mean "good health," which is a way of expressing, "I hope you stay healthy," without invoking divine providence.

In fact, many cultures have traditional responses to sneezing that have more to do with a person's health than with divine petitions. On the most vulnerable end of the scale is the typical Vietnamese response, which translates to, "Are you alright?" On the most honest end of the scale is the typical Australian Aboriginal response, which is basically, "You have released nose water!" Some cultures hold to the superstition that a sneeze means someone is talking about you behind your back, and in Japan it's common for people to ignore a sneeze altogether.

Basically, say what you mean to say, not just what you are in the habit of saying, and you will more effectively create satisfying connection with people, find an authentic sense of belonging, and build meaningful community. When we are willing to examine our automatic responses, like using the word bless when we really mean something else, we will also get better at saying what we mean in the rest of our speaking. And if you really want someone to feel "blessed" -- to feel the actual sentiment behind what you are speaking into their life -- take some personal responsibility for acting on that wish for their well-being. If you aren't willing to do that, maybe the most honest thing really is not to say anything at all.