Blessed. What Does That Mean, Exactly?

I was walking out of a local department store that had a double set of doors. An older woman, who been behind me in the checkout line, was following me out. We had exchanged pleasantries while in line – just things about the weather – light, typical stranger conversation. Just as I was opening the first set of doors I noticed her behind me. Of course, I held the door for her. And because they were a bit heavy, I jumped ahead of her to open the second set.

She said, “May you be very blessed, love.”

I smiled. I thanked her. And I noticed I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.

Repeating that line in my head as I walked to the car, I remembered another time someone had used the term blessed. A time that didn’t feel so very warm and fuzzy.

We were at my son’s classroom having a potluck holiday lunch. Parents and children sat around makeshift dining tables eating macaroni and cheese, broccoli salad and nibbling on cookies with sprinkles. Conversation was light and happy.

Until one parent turned to another parent and said, “We drove by your subdivision the other day. The damage is just shocking! Was your house spared? We were so worried about you!”

Weeks before, tornadoes ripped through our county. No deaths were reported but there was massive property damage.

The other parent began to relay her story. About homes torn down to the foundation. Cars lifted. Trees overturned. But her house? Not a scratch. In fact, the toys her children had left in the yard were in exactly the same place they had left them. As if the storm hadn’t even come so close to their home.

“We were very blessed,” she said with a satisfied smile. And the look on her face seemed to me of smug satisfaction.

My jaw dropped. My eyes widened. And then, I know, my expression revealed cynicism and a critical glare. (I have no poker face. A fatal character flaw.)

Quickly, I tried to recover. I didn’t say a word and then quietly excused myself to search for another cookie, another cup of tea, another conversation.

We were very blessed?

And what? The other families were cursed? What did they do to deserve such punishment? Why are you so special to remain unscathed?

Blessed.

How can one word fill me with the warm fuzzies one minute and disgust the next?

I suppose I’m more of a The-Lord-Works-In-Mysterious Ways kind of girl. I prefer to focus on the lessons learned and the kindness received in any tragic event. But to explain away why some are spared and some are not? Not in my job description. I’ll leave that to the big guy upstairs.

Or, to the smug and self-satisfied.

20 Comments

Filed under Lessons Learned, Soapbox

20 responses to “Blessed. What Does That Mean, Exactly?

  1. My personal (least) favorite is how women in the South use it sometimes–they’ll see a woman they don’t like, maybe one who has an unfortunate outfit on or has put on weight or they’ve just heard a juicy rumor about–and they’ll gossip about it with another woman and then smile and say, “Bless her heart.”

    That one really gives me the willies.

  2. Steven Harris

    I love that words get you thinking so much, Jane. They do with me too. There are so many phrases people use that they might not utter if they stopped to think about their literal meaning or the cultural subtext they come laden with. In this country there is a derogatory use of the word ‘bless’ which is deployed when someone has said something a bit simplistic or naieve. They are greeted with a patronising look and the phrase ‘Aww, bless!’.

  3. Remember the song, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall to sleep counting my blessings?” I’m not sure that the woman meant “WE were blessed…” with an unspoken, “While YOU were cursed” I think it probably was just an expression of gratitude for, well, lucky providence, I suppose. For that woman, having her house still standing WAS a blessing for her family. When she counted her blessings that day, it would be unreasonable not to include having her house standing and everyone in her family safe as one of them and, if she were a praying woman, to not include gratitude for having her home still up would be unthinkable. Although I agree with you most of the time, Jane, I tend to think that in this instance you might be overthinking things a tad bit? 🙂

    That said, isn’t what the elderly woman said to use the sweetest expression? I’ve never heard it used that way before. Lovely.

    • Course, the smug satisfaction bit is probably what makes it icky. THAT would put me over the edge of “Yes, you were indeed,” to “Get over yourself, woman, gain some humility, and start helping those not so lucky.” When I wrote the original comment, I forgot about the smugness factor, which changes everything.

    • I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to the woman’s tone. But I too wonder if her sentiment was more of gratitude than of being “chosen” in some sense.

      What does bother me about the use of the term “blessed” is when people use it to draw attention to themselves. I don’t think this was the case with your little-old-lady-friend. But it’s not uncommon in the South to hear people say (in place of “take care” or similar) “have a blessed day” which I think it frequently used by people to demonstrate how religious and spiritual they are in a moment when their personal faith is totally irrelevant.

  4. Janelle

    Hmmm. It was interesting to read your take on the word blessed as I guess I just never thought of it that way. Thanks for opening my eyes to the different ways someone may take that phrase!

  5. Oh, Jane!

    I got a great chuckle out of this post! There are definitely some regional factors at play here… As much to do with conversational habits as anything else. l have learned not to roll my eyes, to smile, and go on my merry way.

  6. Seems as though some people’s blessings are other people’s luck. They’re kind of the same thing, aren’t they? Maybe what we call it depends on who (if anyone) we think is watching over us upstairs.

  7. It is said that conversation is 7% words, 38% tonality and 55% nonverbal communication. I believe what was distasteful about the second *blessed* comment was the smug tone and the facial expression that went along with it. Of course, there are those that believe that nothing bad will happen to them because of their faith. Boy, are they in for a surprise.

  8. The woman who used that word is one of those people who doesn’t truly undertand the word. I don’t blame you for wanting to get away from her. Be proud that you do know the meaning of the word and can recognize when others know it too.

  9. Is it the tone matters? There is truly blessed and grateful and there is smug and self-satisfied.. I have said, we were blessed not to be there in a moment of disaster when we could have been. We were spared that time and I am just acknowledging the moment. I hope nobody thought I was saying the other people were cursed..but now I wonder…perhaps blessed it not the best word.
    Pondering.

  10. I guess you had to be there. Because if you hadn’t told me she was smug I’d have thought she was just expressing gratitude for being spared…not that she was special and everyone else was not. But..maybe it was her presentation more than her words that struck the wrong chord.

  11. charmstep

    I’ve learned that “bless your heart” down South generally, not always, means ‘you poor thing,’ ‘damn, that baby’s ugly,’ ‘I can’t wait to get away from you.’ Stuff like that. And many people say in all sincerity ‘have a blessed day.’ But people who know what the word means are truly blessed.

  12. Jane, I’m with you on this one. Of course, I realize that lightning may strike me at any moment, so I’ve waited to respond to this until I was sure I had a good cup of coffee in me (in case it was my last). To me, being ‘blessed’ during times of misfortune is nothing more than planning ahead and being prepared to handle whatever is thrown your way. Either that or it’s just good old fashioned luck. God didn’t rip the roof off of one house thinking, “That’ll show them!” while sparing another because the folks that lived there were ‘blessed’. Tornadoes are crazy little acts of mother nature not God, so I doubt God has any control over them. The best you can do is: #1 don’t live in an area where there is even a remote possibility of a tornado occurring, or #2 be the smartest of the three little pigs and build your house like a brick fortress.

    That said, here’s another little saying that somehow irks me: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” When I saw the stumbling drunk hanging out by my car yesterday after work, I didn’t stop and think, “Ah, but for the grace of God, go I.” I was a little resentful that, after a long day of being gainfully employed, I just wanted to get in my car (the one that I’ve recently paid off because I’m gainfully employed), and go home to my house with the water view (the one I can afford because I’m gainfully employed). I wanted to say, “Get off my car and get a job.” I didn’t though. I was polite and said, “Excuse me. That’s my car.” With the exception of a slightly different chromosomes, that stumbling drunk and I were ‘blessed’ with about the same amount of gray matter between our ears. It has nothing to do with the the grace of God that finds me gainfully employed while he’s collecting recyclables in the gutter to buy another fifth of something. I think it has more to do with choices, priorities, and goals. Mine were obviously a little different than his. We are the architects of our own lives. He obviously has built his out of a paper bag and I’m building mine out of bricks.

    Okay, I suppose I should have just written my own blog on this since my response was so long. Bless you for letting me elbow my way up on your soapbox this morning. I’m running for cover now because I think I hear thunder.

  13. As a non-native speaker, this post really got me worried… I have been trying to remember whether I have used the expression “We’re blessed” at all. So is it a rule of thumb then not to use it? Will it using “We’re fortunate” a better substitute.

    After reading the comments about “Bless your heart” I think I am now going to have a heart attack: I have said it. OFTEN. I probably learned it from some old ladies somewhere who said that to me, and I thought it was a proper thing to say when you felt sympathetic towards someone else’s plight? I am going to be so obsessed about this now, trying to remember whom I have offended….

    And now, I think, I know WHY some of the people that I said this too gave me a very very strange expression… Oh my. ZOMG.

  14. It’s all in the delivery. And you’ll be surprised how many people actually think that good luck is because you’re so good you deserve it and bad luck is because you are so bad you deserve it.

    I wish I got a blessing though. Lucky.

  15. I grew up in the South (the Bible Belt South) and heard that word all of the time. It’s used so much (at least in my experience) that people become immune to it. I liked Stacia’s comment that a better word might be luck.
    Interesting post Jane.

  16. Katrina Eaton

    If you believe in God, and believe that it is a gift from God, a “blessing”, when something positive happens, then what is it when something negative happens? Do we not attribute that to God as well? I don’t get it. I think all things attributable to a God must be considered blessings, whether we consider them good or bad. Otherwise it makes no sense to me to say you are blessed only when you consider the event a positive one.

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