“How are you?” someone asks us.
“I’m fine,” we quickly reply. Our response would be the same if our hair was on fire. If we were standing barefoot in a red ant hill. If we were sinking in quicksand.
I know because I said it for years …
When I was going through some of the most difficult, exhausting parenting battles of my life
When I was barely holding it together because of my physical pain
When I was losing my mother to cancer
When my son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis
I hid behind “I’m fine.” It seemed like the safest thing to do. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I didn’t want to risk being vulnerable and get dismissed, judged or rejected. I didn’t think anyone really wanted an honest answer.
At times, I wasn’t sure if anyone could handle my brutally honest answer. I might have looked cool, calm and collected on the outside, but inside? A hot mess. I was also harshly critical of myself. I either believed my struggle was at least partly my fault or, if not, I was certainly handling or responding to it poorly. I just couldn’t risk anyone else judging me or giving “well-meaning” advice.
Answering honestly is risky. I’m not going to lie. Not everyone can handle the answer. People are sometimes going to say stupid things. But hiding behind “I’m fine” is risky, too. We risk missing out on some amazing gifts:
We miss being known.
“How are you?” may seem like just a greeting. But actually it can be an invitation to real relationship.
Relationships grow through authenticity. I know that may seem obvious. But it wasn’t to me for many years. I thought relationships were destroyed by authenticity. That once people really knew me — my struggles, my dark thoughts, my insecurities — they’d bolt.
But when we’re brave enough to answer “How are you?” with a real answer — one that reveals our struggles and doubts — it makes it safe for them to share theirs. When we take the risk and it’s met with compassion and understanding — there’s nothing like that.
It’s the kind of community that God created us for.
We miss opportunities for encouragement and perspective.
A few weeks ago, I was terribly discouraged. I had some challenging things going on in nearly every area of my life. My health was stinky. Overall, I’d had a week where I felt I was ineffective, a disappointment to God and a big, fat failure. I don’t go there as often as I used to, but when I do, it isn’t pretty.
And then I went to church. The place where we all think we’re supposed to act happy and well, fine. A couple of younger women I happen to adore came up to me and asked, “How are you?”
I’m supposed to be the older, wiser woman who shows them how it’s done, right? Maybe so. But I told them anyway. I mean I really told them. Not all the details, but I conveyed the depth of my discouragement.
One of them — my friend Esther — immediately said, “You know that’s not true, right? You are not ineffective. You are not a disappointment. God is enabling you to do some awesome things.” She wasn’t just being nice. Esther is kind, but she’s also a bold truth teller. She was speaking truth into my weary soul. She was giving me some much needed perspective.
I joked that maybe I needed to do Daily Affirmations like Stuart Smalley did in a recurring 80’s skit on Saturday Night Live. Sweet, young Esther had no idea what I was talking about, but Breigh had seen reruns. In case you’re too young to remember:
Later that day, Breigh and I had this Facebook message exchange:
We love you, Melinda!!!
Me: Ha! I needed to smile right now. Love you, too, Breigh. Can’t tell you how much your prayers and encouragement mean.
Breigh: I hope so, Melinda! I can tell you, I totally think you are right to feel those things right now, but I know there is hope ahead! We are right alongside you, though, in the valleys!
Me: Thank you so much. I know I’ll come out on the other side of this phase of discouragement and it helps so much to know that friends like you and Esther are cheering me on.
Breigh: Well, gosh darn it, we like you!
An honest answer to “How are you?” ended up being the turning point in my despair. My circumstances hadn’t changed — but my perspective did. Honesty broke me out of isolation and allowed truth to shine in.
We miss opportunities for our hurts to become someone else’s healing.
I finally began to be honest about my chronic pain battle — and the emotional and spiritual struggles that stemmed from it — when I made this decision: My pain is not going to be wasted. I have to know that something good is coming to come from this. I have to know that God is going to use this to help someone else.
So many more women could relate to my struggles than I would ever have thought. Pain is pain — whatever its source. As I’ve been more open and honest with my story, I’ve been able to connect with other women on a whole new level.
Our honesty draws people to us much more than our heroics.
God is the only one who can truly heal hurting hearts, but He often uses us to be part of that process.
The next time someone asks, “How are you?” consider being brave. Give them an honest answer.
It’s scary. You might be rejected, judged or misunderstood.
But it also might just bring gifts that “I’m fine” never will.