Lately, I have had several conversations with friends I don’t see often. These chats invariably start with the question, “How are you?”—emphasis on the “are,” looking the person in the eye with genuine interest. I guess you would call this type of interaction “catching up.”
But here is the interesting thing. Every single person I have talked to recently responded with, “I’m okay,” some with a pause between my question and their answer. I realize this is an invitation to deepen the conversation. The ball is in my court.
What goes through my mind is, Am I up for this? Am I able to listen with my heart, as well as my ears?
This choice is dependent on exactly how I feel at that moment in time and how heavy my own burden feels. I can say, “Yeah, me too,” and there is instant understanding that while life isn’t great, it’s not as bad as it could be. Then the conversation can move on.
“What’s up?” is an invitation to share—and here is the paradox. In the telling and hearing of our stories with a trusted friend, the burden we carry doesn’t seem quite so heavy. This is the sweet spot, where we empathize with another but do not internalize their emotional turmoil. We listen, but we also trust each other to figure our own way forward.
We all experience challenges as we negotiate our paths. There are burdens we sort of expect. But these days, arching over all is a seemingly never-ending pandemic, inflation, political unrest and violence at home, and war abroad. So add that to expected trials, and maybe life is a bit heavy now.
Today, a fill-in dentist was checking my teeth after cleaning. As these things go, I had only said “Hello,” when he said what was apparently on his mind: a garbled version of the “Serenity Prayer.” But the major point was made.
Knowing the difference about troubles you can do something about and those you can’t—old wisdom that doesn’t age.
Hope’s light may be a little dim these days. But we are all in this together during the good, hard, and trying times. Those who surround us—friends, family, the folks at church, people in the gym, in the market, and so on—walk with us each day as our paths intersect. Life might not be perfect, but imperfect people carry us through each day. And with each heartfelt conversation, hope flickers and lights the path.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)