Monday, January 20, 2014

How Are You? Be Honest, This is for Posterity

When I lived in the Czech Republic, I was warned that Czechs answer the question, "How are you?" honestly. Don't use it as a greeting, people told me. Only use it if you *really* want to know how someone is doing. 

The same apparently goes for Russians, according to an article in the New York Times this morning. According to op-ed writer Alina Simone, Americans's pat answer - "Fine." - would never fly in Russia. In Russia people give you a rundown of their medical history, delivered in an appropriate tone of longsuffering. Americans, she writes, are shocked by such honesty.

I would add that Christians are equally shocked. Face it: We're as guilty of fineness as any other American. In fact, we've spiritualized fineness. The usual responses, "Fine," "Doing good," or "Okay," aren't enough for us. Asked how we are, we say, "Blessed" or "Better than I deserve."

True, "How are you?" is just a greeting and doesn't always need a detailed response. Yet leaning too heavily on this chipper call-and-response may keep us from recognizing real hurt as a normal part of a spiritually-healthy life.

Maybe Russians, Simone wonders, answer the question "How are you?" more honestly since "As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time". To describe your ailments in detail, then, is less about complaining, more about making a political statement. Or maybe, she writes, it's simply a spiritual reality for them, that (quoting Dostoevsky) "suffering [is] ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything".

Either way, the Russians' honesty has something to teach the church.

I wonder, does the church sometimes fall into the same error that the Soviets did? Do we expect believers, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, to pretty much feel fine all the time? Isn't this what the expression, "Better than I deserve!" implies, that  whatever happens to us on this earth, we should be fine with it since by rights we should be in Hell?

Yes, we believers are supposed to rejoice in suffering. At the same time, rejoicing in suffering is not the same thing as pretending it doesn't happen, and our pat, slightly-too-cheery answers to "How are you?" are meant to gloss over suffering quickly, not rejoice in it.

Even the way we Christians respond to people who aren't fine implies that in the church, fineness is normal; grief and suffering, abnormal.

A perky colleague, told I was "Fine," to my surprise asked me what was wrong. I wasn't interested in having a heart-to-heart with a man I barely knew, so I brushed him off with a polite nothing and went on about my business. Yet his assumption that there was a problem, and his his insistence on knowing what it was, struck me as curious, even invasive. In fact, there was no problem; I was simply not brimming with delight that morning.

Several months later, I told a friend who greeted me that I was "Okay," and was pulled up short when she too asked me what the matter was. Again, I told her that there really was no problem; my mind was occupied with leaving work and stripping off stiff, uncomfortable work clothes.

Of course, my colleague and my student both meant very well. I am grateful that the people around me do care about my well-being. What I am concerned about, though, is that my less-than-stellar pat answer to the greeting, "How are you?" prompted two very different people to assume that there was something wrong with me. That assumption, I think, further illustrates that in the church, we are all pretty much supposed to be fine. Anything less than fineness is abnormal, a problem to be solved or at least prayed over.

By all means, pray over the problem. But let's not pretend that prayer will restore us to fineness.

The truth? Jesus wept, so surely we can weep. Jesus prayed before He went to the cross, but He also dreaded the cross, so surely we can experience dread too? Surely we can be discouraged, tired or upset? Surely we can simply be okay without people wondering what in the world is wrong with us?

The truth is, at least in this life we are made to experience a wide range of emotions. God designed us for joy, but he also designed us for grief, weariness, anger, frustration; he designed us to be distracted by problems, sunk in thought, mellow. Admitting this does not make us less spiritual. It makes us human.

Ultimately, Simone suggests that Americans take a page out of the Russian playbook: "Take a vacation from fineness," she suggests, listing off more realistic alternatives to "Fine": "So-so," "the usual," or "eh."

In other words, be honest. 

Good advice. We Christians would do well to heed it.

Credit to Coffee With Jesus, "Just Chill"

No comments:

Post a Comment