A couple weeks ago, I was asked a simple question, “How are you doing?” and hesitantly, I said to my friend, “I’m good.. how are you?” I knew the person well; in fact, I consider her a very good friend. She stopped, touched me on the shoulder, and said again, “How are you?” That did it. She really wanted to know, and instead of saying anything, I began to cry. All of a sudden, I was being embraced in the most genuine hug I’ve ever experienced, and it didn’t take long for me to share how I was really feeling.
I lost my dad two months ago, and since then, I’ve encountered more “How are you doings?” than I can count. Though all of them were oh-so-genuine, my response might not have been. Since it’s a common response to tragedy, and a lot of people truly care and want to know how you’re doing when they ask that question, I thought I’d take a few minutes this week to write about what I’ve noticed about the question, “How are you doing?” and the common response, “I’m fine… how are you?”
I am a member of a small group that meets at various coffee shops twice a month. Normally, these meetings include a time where we just catch up on each other’s lives and then, we delve into the Bible a little and talk about previous sermons we’ve heard and what they meant to us. A common topic that came up last semester was transparency, and we talked about how many people don’t ask someone, “How are you?” with any real desire to know what’s going on in the other person’s life. Simply put, this phrase has become a conversation starter without any hopes that it will fuel the conversation. No, people would much more likely stay surface level in order not to have to confront any issues. I’ve come to the conclusion from these discussions and personal experience that many people don’t step back and ask a second time, “How are you?” because they are afraid of the risk it implies.
When you ask someone, “How are you?” and truly mean it, you put yourself in a position where you might have to offer comfort. You might have to forfeit your own comfort, wrap your arm around somebody’s shoulder, and be okay with the fact that what you say next might not help them at all. The truth is, a lot of your friends and family members are hurting so asking the question, “How are you doing?” comes with a risk. You might have to stop what you’re doing, forget about deadlines, and have a real conversation that involves emotion and depth. You might even have to offer suggestions to help that person or help them yourself. It does require action, if even that action is merely sitting and offering a listening ear.
There is, of course, another side to this issue. I mentioned before that due to a tragedy I experienced a couple months ago, I have had many people ask me how I am doing. There have been a few times I’ve been honest, but sometimes, I have responded in the only way that seems safe in the moment: “I’m fine…how are you?”
And with those five words, the attention is off me. I don’t really have to tell this person how I am doing. No, this is safe. I’ve learned that while the question poses a risk, the answer “I’m fine” takes the attention off me. Oh, they responded, “I’m good.” Now, we can talk about easier things, topics that don’t hurt so much. We can talk about the weather or our plans for the weekend. Neither one of us has to be honest today. The answer, “I’m fine,” is currently the safest place to be. I think we all find ourselves hiding behind the words, “I’m fine,” because it doesn’t require us to be vulnerable; that would mean bothering someone with our “problems,” right?
With the Christmas season upon us, a lot of people are going through a similar experience as I am. My dad loved Christmas. We have a tradition every year in my family where we take turns opening presents in order based upon age, one at a time. What this means is that Trenyce (my niece) who is 12 is supposed to open a present first, but every year, my dad had to open his first, and he refused to take turns. My niece would open hers, Elena (my other niece) hers, and so on, all the while dad is continuing to open presents in the background and smiling so big at each one. We all know that Christmas is going to be very different this year. Trenyce even said, ‘Hey, I am going to be able to be first this year!”
This year, Christmas hasn’t been the joyous occasion that I am accustomed to. I’ve basically ignored Christmas music. I tried listening one day, but I haven’t listened to it since. I’ve bought gifts but only in honor of my dad since he loved them so much. When I wrapped presents, it caught me off guard as I wrote, “from mama” only on the packages. I know that many people can relate. So many people have lost loved ones this year or in years past, and I can only imagine that as the years go by, the pain doesn’t just go away.
That being said, I am challenging myself in the next few days to only ask, “How are you?” if I am ready for a genuine answer and not to respond with the habitual, “I’m fine,” if I am asked that question. If I don’t want to talk about it, an honest, “I don’t want to talk about it,” will do. Would you keep me accountable? And would you allow me to challenge you too?
I was able to vent that day because my friend wasn’t concerned with her next appointment or what she will say to make me feel better. She wanted to know how I was doing, she gave me time to answer, then she lent a listening ear. Don’t settle for an “I’m fine” from anyone that you consider yourself close to. Ask them, “How are you, really?” Be intentional with your conversations for this is the only way we can truly help one another through difficult times, especially during the holiday season.