“How are you?”
It’s my third year of teaching math full time. I’m early enough to get my favorite parking spot. I make my way to the copy-room slash teacher-break room on the second floor of the converted group home turned school.
Phil, a Teach for America first-year teacher, enters. We exchange pleasantries as he puts his lunch in the fridge. I ask some follow-up questions, and he divulges his current frustrations with his roommate.
I listen, making copies as he says, “You know what, Rabbi? You know what’s different about you?”
I don’t know.
And I’m excited to hear.
I love hearing from people about me.
“When you ask ‘How are you?’ — you actually care about the answer.”
I hadn’t ever considered that people might not actually want to know the answer to this question.
My friend Marc likes this formula:
Gratitude = Thankfulness – Complaints
To up our gratitude quotients, he and I exchange five moments of thankfulness every day by email. And we both do a pretty good job of not complaining.
At a pre-pandemic lunch of phö, Marc tells me about a new twist he has added to his game — something that gets him through the day hearing fewer complaints.
“I’ve stopped asking people ‘How are you?’”
“Huh? Why? That helps? What?”
“It’s pretty simple, Rabz…if I ask ‘how are you?’ a lot of the time people complain. So instead I ask, ‘What’s good?’”
One of the silver linings to the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed — people aren’t so quick to give the pat answers “good” or “fine” to the question “How are you?”
Each time someone asks me “How are you?” I have a chance to reflect.
How am I? Let me answer that with a selection of my responses from the last few days.
- “Overwhelmed,” I tell my sister in the early morning as I am walking the dog around the park and thinking about the myriads of tasks on my plate.
- “Delighted to hear from you,” I tell Todd, who called me out of the blue. He explained that this pandemic has reminded him not to take people for granted. And after getting “probably 100 or 200 newsletters from you since we last talked, I felt it was appropriate to give you a call.”
- “Frisky like a kitten,” I tell Kelli, my P.R. helper, when she calls to ask me for ROTB’s log-in information. I was feeling playful at the time, and I like to make her laugh.
- “I’m averaging an 87.3,” I tell Casey, one of more ‘nerdy’ friends. He laughs at my specificity, which gives me time to outline my next thoughts, and I continue, “But that’s the mean. The range is huge. Mostly, I’m at a 92, but there are some precipitous dips, when I’m at a 37.”
- “Adrift in a Groundhog Day type experience,” I tell many people, putting into words a common feeling. And, depending on my perception of the listener’s mood I add, “It reminds me of a quote by Judith Herma, a brilliant psychiatrist: ‘The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others.’”
Finally, to a group I convened on a Zoom meeting, I give the following longer explanation as to how I am:
Let me tell you a story of Rabbi Twersky.
Twersky’s brother was ill, and he asked a friend, a fellow rabbi, for a blessing.
His friend obliged, offered a blessing for the brother and added, “And may you be blessed with many problems.”
Twersky, perplexed, demanded an explanation.
“It’s like this”’ said his friend, “When you have only one worry, it is that there is something truly horrible in your life. When you have one problem, it is something so big that it drives out other worries. But when you are blessed with many worries, it means you are doing alright.”
And so, how am I?
I am blessed with many problems.
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