The Lie of How We Are

The world would be a lot different if we told people how we are when they asked.

You get to work in the morning. Your co-worker says, “Hi. How are you?”

My co-workers are good people. I think they care about me. But in that moment does he really want to know how I am?

Nope. He wants to greet me. He wants to acknowledge me. As he’s rushing to get ready for some meetings or trying to get his inbox down to a manageable level, he doesn’t want to know how I am.

I say, “Fine.” I ask him the same question. He says “Fine.” We get on with our day.

Another example…I’m currently writing at my favorite coffee shop.

As I walked in, I was greeted by a barista with an enthusiastic “Good morning! How are you?”

I said, “I’m good!”

But what if I didn’t?

What if I said, “I’m awful” or “I’m terrible?” Or even, “Absolutely shitty?”

He’d likely feel obligated to ask why or make a consoling comment. He’d have bitten off more than anticipated by asking how I was.

When people ask how you are, how often are you honest? How often do you say you’re fine when you’re not?

What if you said to the bank teller, “Oh, I’m not good at all. Today I have to visit nursing homes with my dad and I’m so stressed out I have diarrhea?”

What if you said to the person behind you in line at Target, “I am horrible. My mom was just put into hospice care and I want to tell her that I love her but she has dementia and I don’t know if she even hears me?”

What if you told the woman doing your pedicure, “I’m terrible. I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s earlier this week and don’t know how much longer I can work or how we can pay for my future care?”

To be fair, there are times I’ve been a bit more forthcoming with strangers and acquaintances. Many times, they seem ill equipped to deal with my response. Sometimes they are beautifully supportive. But sometimes it just feels good to say something other than “fine” when I’m not “fine.”

When I think about this, my mind does a rewind to when my grandma was dying. She has been diagnosed with cancer a few days before, and I planned to stay at the hospital with her that night. We knew she had a few days (at most) left.

I was hungry and decided to venture out to get some dinner. It was later than I had realized, and I couldn’t find anything promising. I pulled into a Starbuck’s figuring I’d grab something frosted and baked and count it as dinner. Calories don’t count when your grandma is dying.

“Hi. How are you?” the teenage barista asked.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say, so I went with “fine.”

“What are you up to tonight?” he pushed. He wasn’t going to make this easy.

I didn’t have the mental energy to come up with a lie. I told him I was staying with my grandma at the hospital.

“Oh,” he said sympathetically. “Tell you what, I’ll sneak in a free cookie for grandma.”

Ugh. Where do I go with this?

My answer surprised me. I said, “She’s done eating.”

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t just accept the cookie.

“For the day?” he asked.

“No, forever,” I said. “She’s finished with eating for her life.”

Yeah, this conversation had just gotten weird.

He gave me a funny look and said something like, “How can she not eat? Everyone has to eat.”

I’m a gerontologist, so I remember my answer going something like this, “People don’t need food when they’re at the end of life. Actually, food can make the process more uncomfortable, so you shouldn’t force it.”

We just looked at each other. I wasn’t sure where he was at, so I went on.

“She’s dying. Like, really soon. Maybe tonight or the next few days.”

The kid looks at me in the most kind way, and says, “How ARE you?”

It was a totally different “how are you” than the one I received when I entered. The intention seemed different. When I walked in, he asked as a friendly but surface gesture. This time it was different. I felt cared for.

At a rough time, this Starbucks barista who probably wasn’t old enough to vote made me feel cared for.

My grandma died in the middle of the night.

I’ve thought a lot about how we ask people how they are and don’t really want the answer. We want them to say they’re good so we can get on with our day. It’s a greeting, really, not a question. What bothers me is that it puts us in a position where we are obligated to pretend things are okay when they aren’t okay at all.

I try not to ask “How are you?” when I’m moving. If I really want to know the answer (which I should if I’m asking the question), I should be still to listen rather than walking away. I try to not ask “How are you?” unless it’s really a question and I’m prepared to hear the response.

If you are a care partner or a person living with dementia, you sometimes say you’re good, okay, and fine when that’s not the truth. Sure, you’re functioning in public. You can make appropriate eye contact and smile. You got yourself out of bed and showered. But sometimes you’re really struggling.

I know this because many of you lie to me. I talk to you and you say you’re good. We talk more and I realize you’re not good.

This is a reminder to all of you as well as to myself….many of the people who say they’re fine are not fine. How many of the people you come across in a day are struggling?

They’re struggling with care responsibilities. They’re struggling with a recent diagnosis. They’re battling depression or anxiety. They haven’t slept in two days. A recent financial crisis has left them close to being homeless. They’re recovering from a stroke.

There are enough crises to go around, aren’t there?

People who are struggling don’t always tell you they’re struggling. In fact, they often tell you they’re doing just fine.

I guess that’s why we should be kind to everyone.