Monday, May 16, 2011

NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT: Why Mom’s rules are bad for your health

If my mom had ever read this blog post, she would have beaned me with giant zucchini.

DON’T LET YOUR MOTHER READ THIS. Send her out of the room.

She gone? Good.

I have a theory. It’s a simple theory, really, and I’m not the first to think of it, but moms don’t like it. The theory is this: Good manners are bad for your health. This is especially true of the good manners your mom insisted on when you were a kid—you know, the ones having to do with four-letter words like “yawn” and “spit” and “burp,” plus others that I can’t mention here even while Mom’s out of the room. “Sneeze” has more than four letters, but it belongs here too.

Almost all the rules Mom imposed back then are bad for your health. When she told you not to yawn or burp in public, she was flying in the face of millions of years of carefully calibrated human evolution. We were designed to burp and yawn. When I repress a burp or squelch a yawn, I am defying Mother Nature in the name of Mother Weathers.

The fact is, our bodies are anachronisms. They are outdoor organisms in what has become an indoor world. They were designed to live in forests and on the plains, not in offices and on trains. They were designed to hunt and graze, not write memos and choose between forks. It took eons for nature to create the sneeze, which still performs an important health function. Okay, so today we live in conference rooms and restaurants, and sneezing there isn’t as pleasant as sneezing outdoors. Nevertheless, it’s still good for us.

I therefore recommend that we ignore our mothers and accept reality. I recommend that we legalize the public burp, yawn, and spit, and encourage the uncovered sneeze.

There. I’ve said it, and I’m not ashamed.

Muhammad was a great advocate of the burp.

Let’s begin with the burp. We burp because we swallow air when we eat. Everybody does it. Doctors call burping “eructation.” Right after we burp, we automatically swallow a little more air, and pretty soon we have to burp again. It’s as regular as breathing. If we didn’t burp, our stomachs might explode. (In fact, there are cases on record of people who have gases in their stomach which have been known to literally explode, but that’s something different.)*

In many Near Eastern countries, of course, it is considered de rigueur for dinner guests to belch loudly after a meal, to express their satisfaction. Until the 17th century, the same was true in Europe. Then came fussy mothers. The prophet Muhammad preached that a belch, followed by the expression “Praise Allah,” would help “avert seventy diseases, of which the least is leprosy.” Wouldn’t surprise me if he was right. Bring back the burp.

Likewise, the uncovered sneeze. Sneezing, along with coughing, is simply a way of preventing bad stuff like dust and bacteria from getting into the lungs. Thanks to sneezing, which doctors call “sternutation,” lung tissue is almost completely free of microorganisms. Without sneezing, our nice warm, damp lungs would be a teeming hell of bacteria, and we’d be sick a lot. When you sneeze, you can rocket a germ up to twenty feet away. When you cover up a sneeze with your hand or handkerchief, you’re missing the whole point, which is to get the bad stuff as far away as possible. Germs are much more likely to thrive on your wet, sweaty hand than on the ground, where they’ll dry up and die.

Aristotle considered sneezing sanctified.
When we sneeze, we go unconscious for a split second. Also, it is impossible to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. This is Mother Nature's way of keeping germs out of the eyes, which, modern doctors tell us, may be the conduits of cold germs. When we sneeze into our hands (as our mothers tell us to do) and then wipe our eyes or pick up the phone, we’re probably giving somebody a cold.

Like burping, sneezing also has a distinguished history. Aristotle lumped yawning, sneezing, and belching together as “ejective” acts, but he considered sneezing more “sanctified” because it came from the head, not the belly. Folklore saw sneezing as a sign of life. A sick man who sneezed was thought to have a good chance to recover. In the Bible (2 Kings 4:35), the first sign that Elisha has brought a dead child back to life is when the child sneezes seven times. Some psychologists believe that a person who is able to let loose with a good sneeze is more likely to experience strong orgasms.

The next time you have to sneeze, ignore your mother, keep your hands down, and let fly. As a courtesy, make sure you're not aimed at anybody. Run outside first, if you have time.

As for spitting (let’s keep this brief), it works about the same. When you’ve got germs, your mucous membranes increase the secretions to wash them away. You’re better off expectorating the result than . . . well, any of the alternatives.

Time for the return of the spittoon?
Spitting is seen world-wide as a way to bring good luck. Hence, fishermen spit on their hooks, and fighters spit on their hands. In some places, shopkeepers spit on the first money they get each day, for good luck; in other places, people spit on newborn babies as a blessing. Some experts say blowing a kiss is a variation of spitting for good luck. Spitting is good for you, Mom notwithstanding. Bring back the spittoon.

We are all born to yawn.
Let us end with the mild-mannered yawn. Your mother told you it is improper to yawn in public. She was wrong. A yawn is good for you. Experts have never really understood the yawn, but the latest medical theory has it that a yawn helps the lungs by forcing open the little air sacs (alveoli) that bring oxygen to the blood. Tibetans believe that a yawn, like sexual intercourse and dying, produces a higher state of consciousness. If somebody yawns in the middle of your next speech, consider that.

It’s obvious that the world changes faster than evolution can keep up with; it will be another 20,000 years, for example, before a baby is born who is adapted to the electric light. Our bodies are still the same outdoor bodies that were designed to sneeze and spit in the wide open spaces. The world is now an indoor world of little ladies who tell us not to spit and sneeze in their kitchens. Their rules are not good for us.

But don't tell Mom I said that.

*As for the gases that build up in the lower regions of the digestive tract, it’s best that we dispatch them in a short, small-font footnote, far out of the sight of Mom. Certain foods, especially certain carbohydrates, react with bacteria in the intestines in a kind of fermentation process. The resultant gases are released through flatulence. Unrelieved gases can be dangerous. Though some Hindus and Arabs see flatulence as a form of purification, freeing the body of evil spirits, more common is the Greek attitude. If a Greek priest “broke wind” during a religious rite, the ceremony was declared invalid. For that reason, priests were forbidden by law from eating such food as beans before significant ceremonies. I refuse to say any more on this subject, even with Mom out of the room.

This essay first appeared in Memphis magazine in April 1989. It has been reprinted widely, including in the 2005 and 2006 editions of the Virginia Tech English Department's first-year Composition text.

Monday, May 2, 2011


     Osama bin Laden was killed today. This morning Americans all over the country, from baseball parks to the White House to Ground Zero, are being shown on tv cheering that news. Congratulations are coming in to the Obama administration from around the world. The phrase of the day—spoken by the President, the Secretary of State, and just about everyone else—is “Justice has been served.” In other words, although no one in an official position will put it this way, “Vengeance is ours.”
     That makes today a good day to write about revenge.
     Legal philosophers have long observed that one of the purposes of a civilized system of laws is to control the revenge impulse. (Full disclosure: Most of what little I understand of this subject comes from Chapter 2 of legal scholar, polymath, and federal judge Richard Posner’s book Law and Literature, which I taught in my Literature and the Law class for six years at Virginia Tech. He uses The Iliad and Hamlet as his examples of revenge literature.)
     In primitive, pre-legal social systems, revenge served two purposes: 1) It satisfied the “revenge impulse,” which is simply the desire to hurt someone who has hurt you, and 2) It served as a deterrent, warning others who might hurt you that if they made you suffer, they would suffer in return. Straightforward eye-for-an-eye retribution was the simplest form of revenge. If someone killed your son, for example, you would kill their son to exact revenge.
     But there are many problems with revenge-based social systems:
     1) Revenge tends to escalate. If someone kills my son, I might likely, in my anger, kill their entire family. Then, in revenge for that, they might start a war against my entire village. And so on, until all-out tribal or national warfare results.
     2) Revenge is economically inefficient; it wastes resources. If someone kills my son, revenge requires me to gather weapons and perhaps warriors to exact vengeance on his son (or family). In the end, even if I succeed, my son is still dead, and I have used up time, material, and personnel with nothing gained—economically—as a result. (The satisfaction of the revenge impulse and perhaps a measure of deterrence has been gained, certainly. That may be enough emotionally and may even offer some protection against hypothetical future threats, but again, this hypothetical gain is at the expense of current actual resources.)
     3) Revenge-based social systems tend to stress family and tribal loyalty at the expense of larger social goals. If someone kills me, I need assurance that my killing will be avenged by someone else still alive—most likely, my family or my tribe—even if that means the larger community loses resources or, worse, ends up facing outright warfare on a larger scale for a cause in which it may have little at stake. Likewise, revenge-based social systems encourage, on a larger scale, nationalism verging toward chauvinism—a kind of mindless reaction to what are perceived as insults or injuries against one’s nation.
     4) Revenge-based social systems place huge emphasis on the concept of personal, family, and tribal honor, as opposed to larger social loyalties and principles. If my family or tribe is central to my security, and if my strength and protection relies directly on my family or tribe’s strength and the respect it commands, then any insult or slight to my family or tribe is a threat against me. This means that the revenge spiral might begin with something as trivial as name-calling or a social snub.
     5) Revenge-based systems are unstable. Once you have a strong family or tribe, for example, you might be more likely to murder your neighbor’s son or steal his horses because you know he cannot take revenge. In such a system, only the strong are safe, so all sides waste more and more resources in escalating—and destabilizing—shows of strength.
     6) Bottom line: Revenge is irrational. Not only does it waste resources and ignore what the economists would call “sunk costs” (my son whom you killed is a sunk cost), but it also encourages emotions that might lead to a worsening situation: anger, grief, frustration, and reckless, even suicidal impulsiveness.
     Because a revenge-based social system is so dangerous and economically inefficient, more “advanced” societies devised laws to, as Posner puts it, “channel” the revenge impulse. Again, the simplest system involves direct retribution: an eye for an eye. You kill my son; the law allows me to kill yours. Three problems with this: 1) What if you don’t have any sons or other family loved ones for me to kill? 2) What father is going to let his son die for something the father did? 3) Why should an innocent son die, even if his father allows it? 
     Another revenge-channeling system involves compensation: if you kill my horse, you must pay me something for my loss—money or something else of value—to be determined by the courts. In some nations, even today, of course, money is allowed to compensate even for the killing of a person. In fact, the U.S. has paid such “blood money” when it has accidentally killed civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.
     In most countries today, some form of compensatory law exists to “balance” harm that comes to you through the negligence of another (see the complexities of American tort law). And of course, both criminal and civil penalties apply to those who harm you intentionally.
     All of which is by way of saying that in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world today, simple revenge no longer is the basis of legal action for citizens.
     But that is not the case for nations. Nations create laws that channel their citizens' desire for revenge but, almost by definition, the nations themselves are outside, or above, those very laws. For nations, revenge is still the only law they can apply so that "justice is served.” If you fly planes into our twin towers and our Pentagon, killing 3,000 of our citizens, there is no court our country can go to for compensation. There is no blood money you can pay to satisfy our desire for revenge. Our desire for revenge cannot be channeled. Vengeance must be ours.
     And so we come to today. We have killed Osama bin Laden, and we are cheering.
     Looking back over the last 10 years, since the 9/11 attacks, I can see that we, as a nation, have behaved like a pre-legal, revenge-driven entity, with all the failings that implies. We have sunk huge amounts of resources into two wars—in Iraq and in Afghanistan—without resurrecting one of the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11. One of those wars—the war in Iraq—was almost certainly more a war based on some kind of national “honor” than a war of military usefulness. Since 9/11, the U.S. “tribe” has sent thousands of our own military personnel to die, primarily in the name of revenge; tens of thousands of our soldiers have been seriously injured; hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians have been killed. This is how revenge escalates violence and wastes lives and resources.
     Many claim that all of this military action was done to prevent future attacks on the U.S. That is open to question. (I question it.) But no one can deny the role that simple vengeance has played in it all. Just look at how America is behaving today, with the news that bin Laden is dead. All of the shouting—“USA! USA!—strikes me as nothing more than a brutal primitive assertion of tribal loyalty in the name of successful vengeance. Even the President and the Secretary of State are indulging in chauvinistic chest-thumping: This proves, they say, what America is capable of! Don’t sell us short! We don’t give up! No one gets away with hurting us!
      It is very much as if they are responding, not just to a physical attack, but to a simple insult to our honor. (“These colors don’t run!”)
     As an atheist, I don’t believe that vengeance belongs to some god, and I don’t feel obliged to believe that it is realistic to ask people to love their enemy, though I find that sentiment morally superior to “get your revenge.” I do wonder, however, at all the Christians I know who today are cheering the death of Osama bin Laden. I wonder: Is that what their New Testament tells them to do?
     The death of Osama bin Laden does not strike me as very important. I don’t believe it will lessen the number of terrorist attacks we’ll face in the future. It doesn’t bring dead people back to life or heal the injured. I suppose it has some small, temporary morale-building value (look at all those cheering crowds!), but that will go away with the next big terrorist attack—and we all know there will be such an attack somewhere, someday, again. I’m mildly pleased that Barack Obama, a President I admire, will experience a jump in the popularity polls next month, thanks to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but that certainly seems the wrong reason to celebrate.
     The irony, of course, is that Osama bin Laden and his terrorists were themselves acting out of a long history of escalating revenge: they were taking revenge on the West and the Israelis for injuries done to Palestinians and other Muslims. And of course the Israelis have acted to avenge injuries done to them. And so on, back through the centuries, all the way to the Crusades and before.
     Our enemies in the Middle East are often depicted as driven by such “primitive” principles as tribal honor and eye-for-an-eye revenge. Today I have to ask: Have we, as a nation, acted any differently?
     Osama bin Laden is dead. So? The cycle of revenge lives on.