By Fr. Garry Richmeier, C.PP.S.
What do you say when someone asks how you are? Chances are, you say “Fine,” regardless of how you are really doing. It is a kind of automatic social etiquette. Usually the person who asks the question really isn’t asking for detailed personal information, and the person who responds knows that they aren’t being asked for a run-down of their day, week, or even life. It is like an ice-breaker exchange which begins the conversation. Of course, it can be a different thing when two good friends begin a conversation this way. In that case it may be a genuine inquiry regarding each other’s well-being.
Saying “I’m fine” to someone’s inquiry is not in itself a big deal. But it’s a behavior which points to a bigger issue for us in the dominant culture in our society which can cause us problems. We generally want to look good. We want to appear competent, confident, unafraid, and in control. We dress for success. We spend hours making our resumes sound amazing. Companies that sell make-up, weight loss products, and hair-growth strategies make untold amounts of money. We buy into commercials that sell products that promise to make us cool, hip, “in,” or whatever the modern term for that is. And if we are hurting or stressed or grieving or not feeling good for some reason, we’re supposed to buck up, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, get over it, and not whine about it. As we’ve been told, no one likes a whiner.
The trouble is that none of us can live up to the image that we try so hard to project. We are not always confident and successful and perfect-looking and in control. And as we spend so much time, energy, and money projecting the perfect image, we may fool ourselves as we are trying to fool others. We may start to believe the false image we build. This can prevent any genuine relationship with others since honesty is what true relationships are built upon. Many marriages fail because of the false images people project while dating. It does not take long to discover who a person really is when living with them 24-7.
Another danger is that when a person really believes the unreal persona they project, they will eventually run into the wall of reality. They will fail, or someone will expose their faults, or something else will happen to shatter the perfect image. Or the pain one is in becomes so great that it can no longer be contained and hidden. Then the person may fall apart, and find themselves in a heap of depression, self-loathing, or shame.
Unfortunately, the dominant culture in our society reinforces the “fine” syndrome. Companies generally want employees that are “fine,” who do the work without complaint and without interruption. But things like illness and childbirth tend to bring reality into the equation, and enough of these intrusions of reality will make an employee less desirable to many companies. Companies also tend to want employees who are “team players.” This can be a euphemism for someone who does not rock the boat by being critical of the company when they see something wrong. That is why whistle-blowers take great risks by speaking up and saying everything is not “fine.” This dynamic is also at play when someone criticizes our country or government. They will often be called unpatriotic for questioning the unreal image projected by the powers that be. And if a person criticizes their religion for doing the same thing, they are labeled unfaithful.
So how can we avoid the pitfalls of the “fine” dynamic? It begins with a realistic understanding of reality that nothing and no one is perfect — and knowing that is OK. Imperfection is a built-in aspect of everything and cannot be eradicated. So imperfections like failure or flaws or doubt are normal and to be expected, and they don’t signal something is wrong with us. They just mean we are human. It is also human to need help in carrying the load when life overwhelms us. It is not weakness, it is human reality.
When we stop denying or avoiding our imperfections or our inability to go it alone, and stop projecting a false “fine” image, we are then free to deal appropriately with these things and not let them disrupt life. This is what humility is all about. When we can be honest about who we are, warts and all, we can enter into better relationships with others. And when we can give ourselves a break regarding our own imperfections, we will likely be able to give others a break regarding theirs. This can go a long way toward peaceful relationships across the board.
True humility also enables us to better deal with organizations like companies or governments or religion. We can level constructive criticism when needed while maintaining a genuine attitude of trying to help the organization be better. It enables us to do this with a minimum of animosity or adversarial attitude.
One thing that helps us stay grounded in reality about who we really are and avoid projecting a false persona is having one or two or three trustworthy people we can be truly honest with, and who can be truly honest with us. These can be friends, a therapist, a mentor, a pastor, or anybody really. We need such people to challenge us when we start to pretend we are something we aren’t. They can help us stay anchored in reality when we would rather trade reality for a better-looking or better-sounding storyline.
Again, there is nothing wrong with saying “I’m fine” when someone asks how we are. Just as long as we recognize those things that aren’t “fine” with us, be honest with ourselves and others about them, and find ways to deal effectively with whatever those things are.
All of the videos in this series can be found here: Assembly God’s Puzzle.
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[Fr. Garry Richmeier, a Precious Blood priest and spiritual director, holds a Master’s of Divinity Degree from St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a Master’s of Counseling Psychology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.]