How are you?
How are you?
It’s a question we are likely to hear multiple times each day. But its meaning can vary wildly. When a person asks me how I am, more often than not, I respond with a single word: good. After that, I usually reciprocate the question by asking how they are, and I receive a similar answer. In this case, the question is like a ritual: a scripted piece of dialogue with which we are all familiar. It doesn’t carry much weight with it. Neither I nor my companion have really gained any new information, but we have said the things we were supposed to say. Now we can talk further or continue on our way, with the knowledge that we checked off a box in the expectations of common courtesy. We asked about them and we cared.
The question can also mean another thing, requiring a little more detail. In some cases, How are you? is translated as How are you doing? or perhaps What are you doing? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. We haven’t seen a friend in a long time and want to know what they have been up to. They tell us the evident things: the activities and achievements that are easy to explain and offer us a little window into the external of their life. These things are important, and knowing these things are important to any friendship or relationship.
We walk away from these conversations in which we have asked How are you? and answered to how we ourselves are, and we feel that we have connected on some sort of level. But I walk away from these conversations and although sometimes I feel this sense of connection, there are also times when I feel empty.
There are moments when an inner struggle rages on; when I am conflicted and confused. There are other moments when I am swept by a strong tide of sadness or loneliness and I want to reach out without knowing how. There are moments of weakness and moments without polished answers or generic responses. And yet I respond to the question, How are you? I respond and say things without saying anything, really. I go my separate way with the feeling that the other really doesn’t know how I am, and that maybe I don’t know how they are either.
Some conversations need to be like this. Not every conversation or situation is suitable for delving into the deeper expressions of our soul. But at the same time, relationships don’t have to stay on the surface, even if they feel comfortable, safer or easier that way.
There is another meaning to the question, How are you? In this other meaning, you refers to… well, you. You as a whole, complete person. You as someone who is not confined by the regulations of society or your current circumstances or actions. You as an individual. You as a face with a unique story and struggle; with weaknesses and flaws and triumphs deserving of celebration whatever their material worth.
How do we create relationships that address this you; that are confident enough to open up to vulnerabilities and tread unsafe yet truth-seeking waters? I think it is difficult, and I have always found it so, but ultimately we cannot force someone else to engage in this kind of relationship. The first step lies in understanding and believing in our identity as a unique and full person: a beautiful blend of body and mind and spirit that cannot be reduced to its mistakes, its comparisons or perceived value.
Once we are confident in our own identity, we can engage in conversations that only scrape the surface of our being without feeling that we are nothing more than this. Awareness of our own inner battles can also lead us to treat others with more compassion and sensitivity. If there are feelings and uncertainties which we are struggling with without giving voice to, we can recognize that everyone we encounter is another you: a person facing their own challenges, that they may or may not let show, and these are no more or less significant based on how they “measure up” to our challenges or those of others.
If we treat others with this compassion and sensitivity, we begin to create a space in which they could feel comfortable opening up to us and expressing themselves with honesty and without shame. In turn, we can give of ourselves to others by expressing our own struggles and difficulties, even if it feels like a risk, and even if they do not treat this offering with the same compassion and sensitivity. In a lot of ways, opening up to others can feel like weakness, but I think it actually fosters strength. Our identity rests in the fact that God calls us beloved, and this is unshakeable, unchangeable truth. When we can admit that we are less than perfect and stop being afraid of our own selves, we allow His light to filter into our relationships, helping us to grow in the process.
So, how are you? How are you really? Sometimes we can’t always answer the question the way we want to, and sometimes our answer has to be or is okay being simple and straightforward. But maybe, if we have the courage to give an imperfect answer when the time is right, we will be able to forge meaningful relationships that encompass the whole person, rather than merely a fragment of it.