How Are You?

How are you?

On the face of it, the question seems fairly innocuous - harmless even. But it can, and does, carry a lot of potential - potential for hurt as well as for connection.

Are you one of those people who always, automatically answers ‘How are you?’ with the standard, glib, phrase: ‘Fine thanks’?

I was one of those for a long time. But really, it’s almost completely meaningless - both the question and the answer carry about as much ‘weight’ as saying ‘Good morning!’ It’s just words; perhaps it breaks the ice; or perhaps, in some circumstances, it serves to strengthen the barriers between us, and to emphasise afresh the lack of understanding, of empathy, in many human contacts.

‘Fine, thanks’ in response to the enquiry can be an honest appraisal of one’s situation; it can also be (and often is) a blatant untruth, an outright lie. It can be a cover for ‘I really don’t want to tell you’ or ‘I don’t want to put you off.’

I stopped answering ‘I’m fine’ quite deliberately. I can’t remember now whether it was during a phase of life when I really was fine, but wanted to express it in a way that didn’t just sound like the stock, glib, unmeaning, phrase which conveys precisely nothing because it’s such a cliché, or whether it was during a phase when I was going through a tough time and was desperate for ‘connection’. I suspect the former, for reasons which may become clear further on in these musings.

I’m actually writing this because I find myself in an odd position. I’m no longer sure what to say when someone asks me how I am. Because I deliberately don’t parrot ‘I’m fine’, there’s always that ‘back of the mind’ question when one’s thinking how to answer: ‘Does this person really want to know, or is this just another way of saying ‘Good morning.’? On top of that, other questions come to mind. ‘Do I really want this person to know how I am?’ ‘Are they really interested?’ ‘Will I get into some sort of long and involved conversation, and do I want, or need, that right now?’

So, how am I?

Right now, I’m physically unwell - and have been for almost five months. I have a heart condition (or two!). For those who want to know, I have both atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter. They’re ‘electrical’ problems, rather than concerned with ‘plumbing’ - I don’t actually have coronary heart disease - instead my heart rate is irregular, and can be too fast, when left to its own devices. I’m awaiting a (fairly minor in some ways - if anything involving the heart can ever be said to be minor) surgical procedure which stands a better than even chance of effecting a long-term cure of both problems, after which I should, hopefully, be back to normal. The waiting list is of the order of six months, though I have told them I’ll take a cancellation at short notice.

In the meantime though, I have a range of ‘issues’ - some of them related to the condition(s), others to side-effects of the medication, and some, like a degree of breathlessness and a lack of energy, which could be attributed to either or both. 

It’s pretty constant and consistent. 

Most of the time, I have to be careful how much I exert myself, or I find myself feeling even more unwell. I have to be careful about getting up from rest - my blood pressure is a bit low, and if I stand straight up from reclining, I’m apt to faint. I have to get up in stages, and wait for my blood pressure to ‘equilibrate’. It’s annoying, as well as unpleasant. And I forget sometimes, and find myself clinging to things until the faintness passes (and I did, once, end up lying in a heap on the floor when there was nothing to grab onto). ‘Doing a lot’ frequently brings ‘payback’ in that I then get most of the way through the day and ‘run out of steam’ - that means the family may come home to find me asleep and that there’s no evening meal ready. Any sort of slight illness - ‘a bug’ - added to the condition, however minor, typically ‘wipes me out’ completely.

Mentally, I am a bit ‘up and down’. Some of the time I am quite buoyant. At other times, what I feel most like doing is crawling into a dark corner and bawling my eyes out... And the latter has been known, but it takes a fair bit out of my limited stocks of energy, so I’m more likely to wander around just feeling fairly miserable... It usually seems better to be miserable than to be slightly less miserable and utterly exhausted.

Spiritually, it’s a bit the same, though generally, I feel ‘closer to God’ than usual. That’s probably because I’m physically unable to be as busy as usual, so I spend more time sitting quietly... Communing with God. But I have times when that all seems to go wrong too; times when God feels really distant and all I feel capable of is sitting in a heap, repeating the ‘Jesus prayer’ (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) endlessly. I’m less able to serve God than before, which is frustrating, though I am getting more, different, opportunities... Less time spent lugging furniture around church; more time spent listening to, and praying with, people.

So how do I answer ‘How are you?’

I don’t want to say ‘I’m fine.’ 

Because I’m not really, and saying that I am would be a lie.

I don’t want to give the answer above each time - it takes too long; I’m bored with saying it, and you’re probably bored with hearing it. And I don’t want to sound like a ‘stuck record’; I don’t want to ‘put people off’:

‘Look out, here comes old misery-guts, grumbling about his illness as always.’

Not least because I’m not really like that - dig below the surface, and a lot of joy comes bubbling up, like water into a hole in the sand at the beach. Despite, or within, the present difficulties, God is good to me; I have an awful lot to be grateful for.

But I also need ‘connection’. Being ill can be very isolating, and I feel as though I’ve lost touch with a lot of my friends. I’m less able to be ‘out and about’ than I usually am. I get lonely; I miss seeing people; I miss good conversations. Yes, I’m an introvert, and I need space to ‘recharge’, but you can have too much of a good thing. And I am a ‘people person’ as well as an introvert. 

There is a sort of creeping paranoia to which it is all too easy to succumb - the feeling that one isn’t seeing people because they are avoiding ‘old misery-guts’, rather than just the sheer practicalities of me not being able to be ‘out and about’.

So there you have it - the difficulties I have with that simple, seemingly innocuous question, more often than not asked unthinkingly in greeting:

How are you?

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2016