When your day is long
And the night
The night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life
Well hang on
Don’t let yourself go
Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts
How many times a day does someone ask “how are you?” Probably quite a lot, depending on how much time you spend out of the house and in public places. Now here’s a more challenging question. How many times a day do you answer that question honestly?
I’ll admit I am more open than most – some may describe me as pathologically open (especially regular readers of this blog!). But often I feel as though it throws a real spanner into the conversation when you answer “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine thanks.” It can be shocking to respond accurately, particularly if you’re not having a good day. “I’m exhausted.” or “I’m in a lot of pain, actually.” or “I’m really upset, because my daughter is sick.” Sometimes people seem taken aback by a genuine answer.
Yet more often than not, an honest answer can trigger a moment of human connection, even somewhere as disconnected as a supermarket checkout. People relate to your feelings, and feel enabled to respond with feelings of their own. “Exhausted” for example, frequently gets a “know the feeling,” followed by a priceless moment of empathy. But that’s only after the initial shock of finding a human being rewriting the play. For a little harmless sport with unsolicited phone calls, try answering honestly, and then asking telemarketers how they are in return. It’s not in the script. It throws to a human moment that they are often immensely startled by.
We have become very good at privacy. For all our banal facebook status updates and overly detailed tweets, nonetheless the stiff upper lip seems to be the dominant theme in our society. We don’t tell people things. We don’t mention miscarriages, grief or bereavement. We don’t talk about money woes, crises at work, relationship problems, or the really challenging moments of parenting.
If you think you’ve had too much of this life
Well hang on
Cause everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts sometimes
REM – Everybody Hurts
We are out there with fixed smiles pasted onto our faces and make up hiding the dark circles under our eyes. All the cracks in our personalities are covered over, and stress is something we must not admit to. I don’t quite know what we think we are risking if we let the world know that some days are harder than others. That some years contain more than their fair share of grief and trauma. That sometimes the challenges pile up to a height that is utterly beyond us.
Perhaps we are afraid of being judged – that somehow our feelings are excessive, that our ability to cope is sub-standard, and that everyone else truly is doing it easily, while we are struggling to get out of bed in the mornings. Yet in my experience the very act of talking about feelings, of giving genuine, open answers to “how are you?” leads to closer connections, and frequent confessions of “good grief yes, me too!”, or “oh that’s awful, that happened to me last year”, or “hey, I’ve been there, and it sucks, but I found this, that and the other really helpful, maybe you will too.” Knowing that others struggle, too, is one of the best ways of knowing you’re not alone.
Sometimes people tell me they’re fine, yet when I respond with “that wasn’t very convincing”, the floodgates open, and they are relieved to be able to talk about what’s really going on. It’s as though they are waiting for proof that I’m really interested before risking an honest answer. And who can blame them? These days shop assistants are required to ask how you are at the start of any transaction. People passing in the street greet you with “how are ya?” but are out of earshot before you have time to reply. It has become a meaningless, surface level question. Never meant to be answered.
The strength of humanity lies wholly in our social groups. Close knit social groups can achieve far more than individuals. Community is a powerful tool. It seems tragic to me that we are busily editing community out of our lives, and building higher and higher fences, both physical and emotional, between ourselves and the outside world.
Next time someone asks you how you are, take down the walls a little and tell them the truth. And if someone gives you an unconvincing answer, call them on it. I’m not saying you should challenge them to a truth-telling duel. But a gentle “are you sure?” can work minor miracles surprisingly often.
Everybody hurts, sometimes.