As adults, we continually ask others the question How are you today? and rarely expect a real answer. We all know it’s a “cultural courtesy question” and if you take it literally when the bank teller asks you, you will probably be met with a look of surprise or annoyance. Most of us don’t really want to know the answer. Most of us are too wrapped up in our own busyness to really care.
When I was a little girl, I did not catch on easily to many social graces. Much to my mother’s embarrassment, I struggled with not showing my true feelings and true colors…perhaps I still do :). Adults would ask me how I was doing and if I didn’t feel like smiling and engaging…I simply wouldn’t. I had to learn to be “gracious” which I labeled at age four as “pretending to be happy”. In fact, seeing Asher struggle with these same issues I have taught him to simply smile and say, “Fine thanks,” when adults ask him how he is dong. That is typically the only answer that anyone wants to hear from you. Asher has found that adults LOVE this response and think he’s such a well-mannered-little-gentleman. They coo and praise him for his good manners. But it’s kind of whacked when you stop to think about it. How strange that we consider it good manners to, at times, overtly lie to others. How strange that we ask such a personal question and don’t really expect a genuine answer.
Although lately, I’ve noticed that this simple conversational courtesy has taken on a new power. I will be casually talking to someone who knows and then it will come…their tone will soften, their eyebrows will narrow, they will lean in ever so slightly, perhaps touch my arm, and they will ask, So, how ARE you? My reply is usually, “Thanks for asking, but please don’t ask me that right now.” This response is typically received with wide-eyes and profuse apologies. No need to apologize. If you know all of my current life circumstances, it would be rude not to ask. And yet, when this simple question comes from a place of sincerity and when the listener really wants to know the answer,there is a complete unraveling power in the question. And quite frankly there is a time for unraveling and a time for keeping it together. When I have two kids at my ankles whining and a list or errands to complete, I can’t afford to stop and fully feel with you the immensity of that simple question.
When I worked as an Elementary School Counselor, I loved to use the above poster with my students to help them develop a vocabulary for all the comfortable and uncomfortable subjective experiences we like to label feelings. At the beginning of a small group guidance lesson, I’d have students play the How are you today? game which is basically “feeling charades”. Each student picks a feeling from the poster and acts it out for other group members to guess. The primary kids are by far the best at this game. They are completely uninhibited, blatantly honest, and overly dramatic; it is so refreshing. (Imagine a little five-year-old boy clutching his cheeks, shaking his head back and forth, with tongue protruding. Uh, are you feeling sick Marcus? No, Mrs. Hunter, I’m feeling disgusted because it smells like a fart in here!) However, as kids reach the intermediate years something changes. Although they (fortunately) improve their empathy and social skills, they also improve upon shutting others out. They begin to build walls around their hearts. Their defense mechanisms become more sophisticated, they become more self-conscious, and they dread peer review. When playing this game, they gravitate towards the safe feelings to act out. Everyone chooses to simply smile for their charade, but they do so with little enthusiasm. As trust is established in the group the kids warm up to this activity and become more real, but I always find their appropriate social development somewhat sad. How wonderful it is to just tell the world…Today I feel disgusted…and everyone listens without judgment, nods affirmatively, and waits their turn to share.
So…how am I? If you are sincerely asking me, then I would love to genuinely answer you like a kindergartner. However, coping mechanisms and defense mechanisms muddled with responsibilities and duties dictate that I respond like an adult. I’m hanging in there, thanks for asking.