Yesterday I found out a friend of mine has been diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. After we cried together, she said things to me like, ‘I want this gone!’ ‘I want my body back!’ and then she asked what she should say when people ask ‘how are you?’.
You know. The trite opening. “How are you?” “Fine! How are You?”
The question we ask so often. The answer we always give. It’s something we use to start conversations, or to politely acknowledge the other’s presence when met in public. Something that allows you to speak and yet at the same time, quickly move on.
I told her what I had learned in going through the same thing. I’d reply with, ‘do you really want to know?’. Not in a sarcastic tone, but meaning it. If you truly want to know, I’ll tell you. If not, let’s move on. Either way is okay.
When you respond that way, there’s always a double-take. People don’t expect it. In their minds they’ve already moved on to the next topic. There’s hesitation that pops into their eyes. You can see them thinking that maybe they don’t actually want to know.
It’s like the time another friend was in the hospital getting treatments for leukemia. When I visited, I asked her what she needed. You know, that sister question to the statement ‘Let me know if I can help’. She said to me that what she needed most was someone to let her be sad. That so many visitors were coming in cheerful and chirpy, wanting to cheer her up, when what she needed was to cry, to rail against fate, to be honest. That was in the 1970s and was a lesson I never forgot.
Don’t ask unless you want honest answers.
And if someone does give you an honest answer, honor that. Don’t back away.
Sometimes our conversations are so shallow, so surface. Words to pass the time, to be polite, to say the expected thing. We talk about the weather in line at the grocery store. We ask how someone’s day is going or how their kids are. But how often do we really mean the questions? How often do we truly want to hear the answer? How often do we ask, even while our mind is wishing they’d hurry up and fill that grocery sack because there’s ten more errands waiting?
I wonder two things. Why we feel the need to fill air space around us with words that mean nothing, and why do we not say what we really want to say?
I know, polite society, societal norms, expectations. But still, why?
And then when someone does not meet those societal expectations, like, say, my husband who has no desire to engage in conversation with strangers, they are treated like they are rude.
Me? I can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. I want to hear everyone’s stories.
But I’m still getting hung up on why we talk but don’t speak, why we ask but don’t listen.
So if any of you meet up with me and I ask, ‘how are you?’ it’s because I really want to know. And I hope you’ll be honest with me.
Let your words be pure, be strong, and define you.
Life is too short to do otherwise.