The honest answer to the common question

How are you?

Yesterday at the dentist’s office, I spent a half hour staring at the poster of a bulldog on the ceiling. He had dentures in his mouth, stretching a huge toothy grin across his lips. That dog couldn’t have been happy to have a set of false teeth stuck in his mouth and being photographed, but he faked it:

“How are you?” 



It made me think of all the times I’ve faked a smile, pretending that everything in my life was perfect when really, deep inside, I was miserable. Smiling hurt. It didn’t matter how pearly white my smile was. I was still heart-sick.

Many years ago, I sat in Psychology 101, gripped by the fierce beast of depression. It was break time for our three-hour class and I laid my head on my desk. Fighting my emotions had become one long defeat, and for once, I couldn’t curve my lips upward.

 The professor stopped at my desk. “How are you, Laura?”

“Fine.” It was the automatic answer, the answer you give to a fellow church member in the sanctuary after fighting with your spouse the entire way to church.

“Laura, it’s okay to tell the truth.”

I still remember his kind face when he spoke. I wish I had told him the truth: I’m depressed. I make myself throw up every day. I refuse to eat like a normal person. I need to find a way out of the mess I’ve made of my life, but I just don’t see it. Everything’s turned black-and-blue, like the world has beaten me to a pulp.

Instead, I nodded and stayed silent.

I have a feeling that this professor would really have cared to know the truth; maybe he could’ve helped or encouraged or showed me the path out that darkness.

But my silence bound me tighter in my internal prison. Secrecy chained me to my addiction. I didn’t admit the extent of my despair and I didn’t get help.

In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian (the pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City) and Hopeful (his companion) are stuck in the Giant of Despair’s castle. The Giant has locked them away, repeatedly showed them the skulls of those who have died within his dark prison, and almost succeeded in killing the two men.

Christian despairs. “My soul chooseth Strangling rather than Life, and the Grave is more easy for me than this Dungeon!”

Hopeful listens and offers comfort:

 “My brother, let’s be patient, and endure a while, the time may come that may give us happy release.” 

After hours of prayer, Christian remembers that he has the key of promise. He fumbles in his pocket, finds the key, and inserts it into the lock of the prison door. The two emerge from the dungeon of the Giant Despair’s castle. They are free.

Christian had the key all along, but he despaired until Hopeful listened to his grief, encouraged him to remember times when he was stronger, times when he could have died yet was unafraid. Then he remembered the key that would set him free. He needed his friend.

Had he been alone, he undoubtedly would’ve joined the piles of skeletons of those who had succumbed to despair.

Had he pretended to be okay, faked a smile despite his circumstances, his friend might not have known how Christian longed for death.

By acknowledging his internal darkness, he gave Hopeful the chance to extend hope and encouragement to him.

I don’t have to fake a grin. I can answer honestly when a close friend asks me how I’m doing.

I try to use prudence in who I share the extent of my problems with. The cashier at Little Rosie’s or a casual acquaintance or an untrustworthy person don’t need to hear this. I usually nod and acknowledge the question for what it is: a greeting and not an actual question.

But with a trusted friend, I don’t have to fake it. I don’t want my friends to fake it with me, either.

I may be Christian, needing hope. I may be Hopeful, listening and pointing the way to hope. But if we’re not honest with each other, we’ll remain in Giant Despair’s castle, alone in the darkness, hopeless and despairing.

Really, though, there is a key that fits the lock of the prison door. Sometimes we just need to be honest and acknowledge that we need freedom.

How do you usually answer the question, ‘How are you?’? Do you find it easy or difficult to tell a close friend when you’re having problems? What do you think holds us back from acknowledging our problems rather than faking happiness?


4 thoughts on “The honest answer to the common question

  1. It is life changing to find that person with whom you can open up. I wish I had known mine back in college. Funny because they are not necessarily your oldest and closest friend but just that person who you know you can go there with and count on no matter the topic or level of seriousness. All to often we do use that greeting when it isn’t a sincere question. Universal issue I guess…..or perhaps it is a Southern thing! Good post yet again.


    1. That’s a good observation, Jennifer. Some of the people I open up to the most aren’t necessarily super-close friends, which seems strange, really. Thanks for reading this. 🙂


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