What a pleasant surprise to discover that I am still learning and discovering things about myself even at my age. My latest revelation is that even if there is no one else available…which, let’s face it, for the last year, there hasn’t been…I will shake the shiny keys and amuse and distract myself. Let me give you a case in point.
I haven’t been lying exactly, but lately, I have found that sometimes my answers are less than truthful. I suppose in the strictest definition, being less than truthful might technically be considered lying, but I prefer to think of it as responding with a fanciful answer. I simply imagine reality as I wish it to be rather than it is.
These days, I seldom give a completely truthful answer to the question, How are you? I usually answer with a short, positive statement. “I’m fine.” “Pretty good.” “Can’t complain.” “Couldn’t be better.” I found an online site teaching English as a second language that suggests five responses to that question…all in the affirmative. Negative responses are in the advanced lesson. I answer that I’m fine because that’s how I’d like to be…how I’m hoping to be…how I will be…but that’s not always truthfully how I am.
“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
When I’m asked that question, I want to say things…shout things… like… I’m really tired of this pandemic; I’m getting sick of Zoom and FaceTime; I’m weary of being alone, yet even with the vaccine, I’m still hesitant to be with others; I don’t think I even remember how to be with people; I’ve forgotten who I once was, and all these people who still refuse to wear a mask or social distance are making me crazy angry. I’m pretty certain that if I gave voice to any one of those responses that I’m holding back…assuming the person inquiring had time to recover from my rant…I’d be joined by a cacophony of other voices shouting, “Me too, me too.”
Instead, I smile and say, “I’m fine.” “I’m doing well.” “Everything is all right.”
In our society, the phrase, “How are you?” has been reduced to a perfunctory greeting…a simple formality…a nicety. Does anyone actually expect or even want a completely truthful reply?
“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”Swedish Proverb
Sharing our joy is easy…social media is filled with photos, videos, and posts expressing joy and happiness…but for many, it seems…sharing sorrow is more difficult. Problems, heartache, fears, and worry are universal. No one can escape sadness. Bearing such burdens would be easier, of course, if we reached out to each other. Instead, we stoically lift them to our shoulders and trudge on. We cover our fears, our uncertainties, our sorrows with a mask of “all-rightness.”
I suppose it is the risk of revealing our soft, tender places that prompts us to give the brief expected response. “I’m fine. How are you?” Exposing our vulnerability…sharing our pain demands a certain amount of trust and confidence. We enjoy the game, but we hold our cards close to the breast.
Years ago, when I apologized for a slight I thought I had committed, my friend, Carol, replied, “You know, you worry about the wrong things.” I know for her it was a casual, off-hand remark, but for me… an accomplished worrier…it became a challenge.
I worried about what I was worried about, and then I worried about what I should be worrying about. I suppose giving a less than sincere answer to a question as innocuous and commonplace as, “How are you?” is one of those things that come under the heading of…wrong things to worry about. Still, I must admit, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering such things.
“One thing I can suggest is that when you start to go to a dark place, for you to consciously redirect your thoughts. Mind over mind. Make yourself think of something completely different. An image of something joyful or silly, and focus on that.”Sue Halpern, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library
Some people do jigsaw puzzles; some people run for miles; some people read stacks of books; apparently, I spend hours pondering the correct response to a cursory question.
Recently, I discovered a long-forgotten, thirty-five-year-old scrap of paper that I had tucked inside a book. I had written several paragraphs comparing the benefits of showering vs. soaking in the tub. At the bottom of the page, I included a message to my future self explaining that I had spent time writing this wee document to take my mind off the troubling situation that was occupying my life at the time.
While unbidden or sudden distractions cause us to take our minds off the goal or our eyes off the road, they also invade our thoughts and lead us down paths we would rather avoid. That constant chattering monkey-mind that clutters our meditations or won’t allow us to fall asleep can be really annoying. Paradoxically, it seems to me that seeking diversions can be quite beneficial, calming, and ultimately help us to focus. When we’re thinking about edge pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle, we have no time to think about when our children will be vaccinated, when the Canadian border will open, or if going to the grocery store in the afternoon is a wise idea.
We have filled an entire year with diversions of one sort or another. The list is long and varied. We have exhausted all our usual ways of filling time on a rainy day, and we are longing to get back outside and into the sunshine of our lives once again. We’ve helped each other through this challenging time, and we’ve discovered interesting solitary pursuits. I’ve never run a marathon, but I have the experience of long car trips. When you have driven all night, those last couple of hours are the most difficult. That’s when you turn up the radio, roll down the windows and sing like a Rock Star.
We’re almost there. We can make it. I’ve learned that even when there isn’t anyone else around…I can always shake those shiny keys and distract myself just a wee bit longer.