What did I learn this week?

How are you today?

Have you ever noticed that, in most cases, when someone asks “how are you today?”, they don’t really expect an honest answer? It is just a formality, with no actual expectation (or desire on the part of the asker) that you reply with any sort of accuracy or honesty. I mean, what are you going to say? “Well, today I woke up feeling like the world is closing in on me and I’m a terrible parent!” No, you say, “I’m fine, how are you?”

Now, it is one thing to blithely ask the how are you today question, but shouldn’t you be prepared if someone actually does tell you that, in point of fact, they are NOT good, and want to talk to you about it? If you are just being polite by asking, shouldn’t you continue to politely listen if the person chooses to answer with more than the standard response?

Someone once told me that when a person gets cancer, they often lose many of their friends, because it seems that most people do not like to be anywhere near a real crisis if it can possibly be helped. No one wants to ask the person diagnosed with cancer how they are, because it can’t be good. Since it is rude not to ask, some people choose to disassociate themselves altogether, thus avoiding any potential “unpleasantness.”

To be completely honest, I do understand this impulse not to talk about unpleasant and upsetting things. I remember vividly a number of years ago running into a woman who I had known since childhood, whose mother was killed by a family member diagnosed with mental illness. I had read about it in the newspaper at the time it happened. When I ran into her a few years after this tragedy, I had not seen her in some time, and not since her mother was killed. I wanted to say something, but I just did not know what, and so I didn’t say anything. I felt so ashamed that I had not had the courage to say something to her. I saw her again a few days later, and I apologized to her for not saying something about her mother, telling her the truth: I just didn’t know what to say. I will never forget how kind she was to me in reassuring me that she understood how I felt, that it was hard to know what to say, and also thanking me for saying something about it.

After what I have gone through recently with W, I have in some cases experienced a similar lack of responsive from others. As recently as last weekend, I had more than one person ask me how W was doing, but then were quite obviously uninterested in any response other than “fine.” More surprising, or maybe not, is that these were not strangers. In fact, I have found that often strangers are more interested and compassionate about the whole situation. As usual, I don’t know what I would do if I did not have my mom to talk to about this sort of encounter. She always reminds me that people do what they are able to do, and that I shouldn’t expect them to change — I’m the one who has to accept that and adjust my expectations accordingly.

Fair enough. What I am coming to understand, however, is that the reason I have such high expectations of others is because the behaviour I observe at home has set the bar very high. That is, if my mom or dad or Corey asks someone how they are doing, they really do want to know, and will always listen. And, if we know someone is having difficulty, shouldn’t we be even more prepared to offer genuine support by being there to listen, or just to say that we feel something about their situation? I think so, but then again, that’s just me.

And, the reality is that W IS fine now, and that is the most important thing.

4 Responses to “How are you today?”

  1. It is said that life’s challenges help us to grow, but the truth is, the growing can be so very painful. It is sometimes hard and frightening to share these challenges and to witness them in people we know and care about. We all need to find the courage to do so, and to be a companion in times of difficulty. Thanks for letting us know that W is OK and for talking about the “How are you today?” interface so honestly.

  2. I wish we lived closer. I would help with your laundry and we could talk over herbal tea.

  3. Hi Justine,

    I agree with your comments about people and social niceties. Your mom raises a good point, so you are lucky to have her there.

    I’m glad to read that W is fine – what happened to evoke this posting?

    I hope you all have a happy and healthy fall/winter. We’re already going through our first round of colds. Argh…


  4. Justine, your family’s ability to listen and care (or at least give a pretty good impression of such) is one reason – just one! – why I love going over to visit you guys. 😀

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