How many times a day do you have encounters with the question, “How are you?”? I believe that our culture is somewhat responsible for the onset of this greeting in stores and cafés. My family’s German exchange students from years ago found the daily postulation by strangers perplexing. I remember dissecting the question with a former teacher in high school, probing its deeper meaning. “How are you” resonates peculiarly with how do you exist or how did you come into being. He then re-framed the query by asking me what state I was in (though this is also odd) as well as quite probably questioning my sanity, no doubt (well, I know he did think me weird, which is quite true).
The question: How are you? It’s a loaded one with the only socially acceptable response as a variant of “fine” or “good.” (Though of course, good indicates morality, rather than mood, but this is still a correct answer to the posed question.)
Sometimes we are not fine. Sometimes our outward appearance, or affect, betrays our hurting innards. Sometimes we might show up to social events or work telling everyone we are fine, though our inner world is a collapsing black hole. I don’t know about you, but I have a misapprehension that transient states, be they fine or not fine in experience, will perpetuate. If I feel sad, anxious, or down, that transient state possesses a permanent quality in my mind. I feel I’ll always exist feeling that way and that I always have. If I feel a sense of peace, that state, too, takes up residence in my mind as being lasting, leading to a seismic shock when it ends.
The truth is that every experience and everything else in the universe is impermanent, including life itself. Nothing persists indefinitely. Not stars. Not the state of the universe. Even space-time changes. Nothing is permanent. We can obtain peace and comfort that even suffering is ephemeral. We all dwell in a state and cosmos of flux. So if you’re not fine today, remember that this, too, will likely change. Everything and everyone evolves, and you just have to keep going because tomorrow your mood might improve. Seize those giddy moments when they befall, even if they are fleeting, because life is worthwhile even for just these brief periods of lightness.
If you are feeling not fine, I dare you to confide in someone and be vulnerable yet open to comfort and care. Someone once told me that the remedy for low moods is activity, physical activity, and social connectedness. The silver lining to suffering is the discovery of the love that is proffered if you strive to connect with others. Other positive side effects of pain include growth and self discovery. Edvard Munch and Sylvia Plath are just two examples of artists who leveraged their mental illness into creative works. I know, it’s poor consolation when you feel detached from the mood you believe you can aspire to experience or what you feel like you should or could achieve. Or when life feels unbearable, like gravity is tearing you apart by tidal forces or a dark well is slowly dragging you into its depths. But if you connect to a friend, therapist, or family member, you might develop a close relationship and find beauty that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible. It’s the side trips in life, the ones off the main route, that often offer us the most poetic scenery. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill broaches the subject of what you miss in life when you are well. If your well-being is cracked, it might open you to slowing down your life, to time dilating, and to deliberating in the moments that don’t feel like good fortune but possess qualities you might otherwise have passed by without observing.
Your journey is yours alone, unique and special. There is nothing to do but to accept your journey and also remember that you have some degree of power over it, power to change the status quo or to improve the quality of your experience. If you’re not fine, fight your best fight to transform those parts of your experience over which you have the capacity to modify and let it lead you to who you are destined to be. Even if it’s not how you thought you would look like before. We imagine who we will be as children, how our lives will appear as adults. These dreams never factor in illness, tragedy, and other inevitable life events. So we have to adapt to mold ourselves to unforeseen circumstances and emotional states. And along this journey we might find some strength, comfort from others, and some beauty to which we might otherwise have been blind.
How are you? If your answer is “not fine,” I dare you to extend your heart to seek comfort in another’s compassion and to remember that nothing, even feeling badly, prevails forever. Life is all too flickering anyway, a brief candle as Shakespeare alluded, so you might as well embrace it for what it is in all its colorful nuances and emotional landscapes.