It’s a simple question. It’s one we ask, and get asked, on a regular basis.
It’s what happens next that I am thinking about this week. I received a phone call this week from an institution doing a study. They started with the standard “How are you?” and were then surprised when I responded – not only that I was fine, but also returning the inquiry. “Um, oh. Oh! I’m fine! Thanks for asking!” The caller seemed so shocked that I would take even a passing interest in his well-being rather then merely see his opening line as a pleasantry.
I wonder if that’s what this question has become to us – a bland statement instead of a genuine inquiry. Have we as a society become so accustomed to this question going unanswered (or un-listened to) that it has lost all it’s meaning? Have we stopped listening for anything more than a superficial response?
A friend told me that her colleague would rush past her every morning, asking “How are you” as he blurred by, never stopping for a response. She said that after years of this he hadn’t even noticed she didn’t respond anymore.
I wonder if we (as a broader culture) are choosing not to listen to an answer because we (as a broader culture) are unable or unwilling to really hear the answer. To actually engage with someone about the personal issues that are influencing their day. If we listen to an answer that is more detailed than the ubiquitous “fine” then will have to respond to those realities. We will be challenged to journey with someone else in their joys and sorrows. We will have to acknowledge that someone in front of us is making themselves vulnerable, and inviting us to do the same.
Listening, of course, takes time. It takes effort. It takes intentionality. It does take that willingness to share a bit of our lives as we are hearing a bit of someone else’s. Admittedly, we all know the over-sharer, the person who will tell their life story to anything or anyone present. But for the average interaction with someone we know, “how are you” should be an indication that we are willing to take that time, without judging or giving advice or rushing off.
As Christians, we should take those “how are you” moments seriously. Jesus taught us the benefits of listening. He listened to others in their challenges, he listened to others to get to know them better and to better understand their points of view, to clear up confusions and to help resolve conflicts. When Jesus asked how people were, he knew he was making the commitment to hear the answer. He listened as people began to open up and find healing and acceptance and love. He actually wanted to know how people were by finding out who these people were.
We’re invited to do the same. We can choose to continue using “how are you” as a superficial greeting, or we can use it with intention. As we increase our intention in asking, we will increase our relationship building – and we’ll learn that the response of “fine” almost never means that. We will see beyond the “fine” mask into the truth – people are happy, scared, sad, elated, overjoyed, terrified, uncertain, etc. We all want to be listened to: to be heard, known, loved. Our challenge is to begin by listening to others to help build community, just like Jesus did.