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The Whitest Lie

The Whitest Lie

Hello. How are you?

Let me guess—you’re fine. Or you’re pretty good. Or you can’t complain, or you’re alright, or you’re groovy, or some other happy abstraction you use to say that your life is OK or better. Which one do you choose? How often is it a lie?

You are not about to read trite truisms about banishing the word “fine” from your vocabulary. We’ve all heard that before. Yet, we continue to proclaim daily what some call “the other F-word.” I include myself in this indictment, though I usually say, “pretty good.” When someone asks me how I’m doing, it’s automatic.

Whenever someone knows that a behavior is wrong yet continues to make the same bad choice, I suspect that something deeper is happening. That pattern holds here. Beneath the surface of this commonplace evasion lies one of the most damaging social, psychological and spiritual sicknesses of our culture. When I say that I’m fine, I assert my self-sufficiency. I’m saying that I can handle life alone, that I don’t need anyone’s help, even when I’m faced with a problem that seems insurmountable or a terrible choice.

But, so often I can’t handle life. Self-sufficiency is a lie we tell ourselves because, in our ideal pictures of ourselves, we can solve all our problems on our own. The truth is, of course, that we all need help nearly every day. Every one of us is a perplexing mix of strengths and weaknesses. In other words, we’re human. We all know this, but none of us likes to acknowledge it, so we keep on telling this whitest of lies without considering its implications.

Unfortunately, this web of pleasant, habitual deceit goes even deeper. Think about the question, “How are you?” When we ask that, we think we’re doing a favor. We ask out of care for the other. The question merits one little compassion point every time we ask. But we certainly don’t expect an answer that depresses us or takes our time or begs us for help; we expect to hear “fine.” Have you ever asked someone how they were doing at the wrong time and had them unload their frustration and anger on you? If the person was a friend, you probably got over the initial shock and listened with care. But if the person was just an acquaintance or someone you just met or someone you already disliked, that pain-dump was probably an annoying imposition. So you weren’t really asking out of compassion in the first place. You may have even thought to yourself, Why didn’t they just say “fine” like everybody else? I’ve had that thought a few times.

Let me break it down. “How are you? Fine, and you? Fine, thanks.” This blasé exchange allows both participants to score false nice-guy points and assert false independence. This is a vast conspiracy of lies, and we are all implicated, passing ourselves off as supermen—and superwomen—and denying ourselves the chance to actually offer and receive the help we need.

No, Virginia, independence is not the answer. No one is that competent. But dependence isn’t the answer either. Clearly, we all need to take responsibility for ourselves too. The answer, then, is interdependence, wherein people need and are needed, help and are helped. No one’s perfect, and no one’s worthless. Interdependent relationships reflect better the truth of humanity and allow us to let go of the shabby lie of self-sufficiency. They allow us to experience more joy and meaning in life.

The truth is, most of the time, we desperately need the care of others. I’m not OK, and you’re not OK, but that’s OK. In my darkest days, when I have put on a happy mask and denied my fears and pains to myself and others, when every “How are you?” produced a hardening of the shell, the first step out of the dark has always been a choice for humble honesty. I poke a hole through the shell, letting some light in by telling the truth about the state of my life, and then realize anew what I knew all along: light is good. And, as the saying goes, giving is better than receiving. When a friend vulnerably asks for help or shares a hardship, I feel honored at their trust. In that situation, I jump to do all I can for them. Those are some of the most meaningful times in life.

How do we build a culture of interdependence? We can start with this innocuous little question. When I ask someone how they’re doing, the response I most appreciate is a heavy look and something like, “Do you really want to know?” That teaser let’s me take a beat to think about how much care I’m ready to give. The question “How are you?” can be rephrased in more helpful ways to invite deeper, more thoughtful responses. For instance, ask about specific circumstances, if you know of any. When someone asks you the basic question and you have a more challenging answer to give but you’re not sure if the question is sincere, give a response that invites a further question. If people made these changes, we would live in a more caring, honest world. I think we should all start practicing. So …

Hello. How are you?

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