I talk to people in elevators. Even unfamiliar faces open to a smile with a passing comment on the weather and a “How are you?” Almost invariably the answer is “Fine.” And in moments we part, wishing each other well. A graceful verbal pas de deux.
But this story can take unexpected turns.
Seated in a restaurant some months ago, a woman approached me. She was familiar but out of our usual context. Then in but a second, I recognized her, a physician I used to see annually, until she left her private practice for an administrative position.
My smile met hers, and she asked, “How are you?”
“Fine,” I said.
Then she asked, “Really fine?”
It was no longer an elevator conversation. Not settling for the usual dance, she had moved beyond the pro forma query and the automatic response.
As it happened, I was in good spirits, so I reaffirmed my initial answer. But later I recalled her second question and was grateful for her persistent interest. It caused me to consider how often I asked only the first question, even of close friends and family. Was I too busy, or too self-absorbed to ask, or maybe I’d rather not know?
Why would I rather not know?
On giving it serious thought, I recognized that between youth and my middle years, my behavior had shifted. When our kids were still young and became ill, I snapped into action, taking responsibility for their recovery with a purposeful ease. I had the power and control to select the right doctor and administer the care that would make them well. This was the role a parent should play and I did. By taking charge, my anxiety eased.
But years later, when our children were grown and independent, a major medical issue arose for one of our adult sons. This time my husband Len became the more attentive parent. When surgery was scheduled, he traveled some distance to join our daughter-in-law by his side. Afterward it was Len who frequently called to ask how the recovery and follow up treatment were going. I waited to be told and was to some degree avoidant. No less concerned, but having ceded the important decisions to others, I backed away—and my anxiety grew.
I think this is why. When one of our adult kids faced a problem, Len could listen and be empathic without believing he had to influence or direct the outcome. Not me—I slipped back to my old script, longing to protect even grown children and help them reestablish their equilibrium. But now I no longer had the ability to do so. I had to acknowledge a new boundary, but since I was no longer in charge, worry took over. My withdrawal at the time of crisis was an attempt, albeit a failed one, to be self-protective.
It has taken me far too long to learn that sometimes simply listening, seeking to understand, and expressing sympathy are enough. I do not need to offer the right advice and take responsibility for a decision being made. Giving up that mandate, which still requires a mindful pause, restores calm.
Once again a personal insight informed my professional practice. When I met with a client to discuss their concern, my first question was often, “How are you doing?” And if the response was perfunctory, I’d ask the second question.
Now, with friends and family, sometimes I ask the third question, “Is there anything I can do?”
I expect their answer will probably be no, but the question is an invitation to talk further if and when the time is right, to have a conversation that may serve us well and enrich an intimate connection.
Just the asking brings comfort, for both of us. And on these new terms, I really do want to know.