So on my trip through the Starbucks drive-thru the other morning (I make several each day so that I have some discretionary spending to cut out should it become necessary), the barista greeted me with “Good morning. How are you?”
I was momentarily baffled. I mean, I hadn’t taken a good measure of how I am just at that moment. Then, still unsettled but wanting to avoid further delay and chatter, I gave the obligatory “fine” and got down to the business of detailing my simple cup of black coffee—the first of what I knew would be two or three rounds of clarification. (If I wanted cream or sugar, surely I would have specified that, right?)
After I received my coffee (well, Americano because they were out of drip—and it is not the same), I left and pondered the question “How are you?” The more I thought about it, the more disturbed I became. The question “How are you?” is deep and important and personal. But this expression has slipped into every casual encounter that we have throughout the day and become superficial and banal. I don’t believe that the barista was prepared for any answer but “fine,” since we can’t even see each other, have no relationship, may never meet again, and there is a line of cars behind me with people who really want their caffeine. The moment just didn’t feel right to “share life” together in the way that the question invites.
After that encounter, I was hyper-tuned and heard it several more times through the day. “Hi, how ya doing?” “How are you today?” “How’s it going today?”
When I am asked that question, I feel backed into a corner. Since I am doing life in this world, I am rarely “fine.” There is usually something that I am angry, anxious, scared, or worried about. I have a reasonable grip on the Big Picture and am not overwhelmed by these things, but they are on my mind and I am usually not “fine.” When I am asked the question, I am forced to choose to:
1. Lie and say I’m “fine” and get through the transaction with minimal distractions and delay (after all, all I really came here for was a cup of coffee).
2. Spill my guts and reveal what is really on my mind. I realize this may make the person who asked me really uncomfortable. TMI, ya know! Just because they asked doesn’t mean they wanted to know. Besides, the rest of the caffeine addicts in line may not tolerate the delay that will ensue as we talk through my issues.
3. Confront the person on their superficiality and give a short lecture on honest dialogue guidelines for encounters with strangers. (See potential fallout from option #2.)
4. Pretend I didn’t hear the question and just say “Hello!”
I usually now opt for #4. It seems the most honest and efficient. On occasion, when the mood strikes me, I will try #2 or #3 just for entertainment. It is low risk if the asker appears to be on the right combination of meds, the line isn’t too long, or the folks behind me don’t appear to be prone to violence. And on rare occasions, a meaningful conversation happens.
I welcome a friend asking me how I am—even when I don’t really want to talk about it. I believe they care and are ready and willing to pause and “do life” with me if I share a burden with them. And I try to mean it when I ask them, and to be ready for something other than “fine” and the life that will happen as we talk.
So if I cross your path today, unless you are ready to “do life” with me and to weep with me if needed, please just say “Hello.” It’s enough.
How are you? (And I mean it!)