Every day, we are greeted by someone who asks how we are. Most of us give a one-word response like “good” and ask the other person the question almost reflexively. We don’t get much out of simple interactions like this, but I believe these interactions are more important than they may seem. They’re an opportunity to connect when people actually need to be asked how they are. Sometimes people genuinely care how we feel — they take the extra step to ask, “No, really, how are you?”

Recently, I’ve been saying, “I’m OK” when people ask me how I am. It’s the truth, but saying those two words is a way of opting out. It lets me avoid conversations about what keeps me awake at night because initially, I am hesitant to share and fearful of what others will think. “OK” can be a watered-down version of “I’m having a horrible day,” or “I’m struggling.” In my case, it’s more of the latter. What’s bothering me is multiple difficult days, filled with anxieties and obstacles to climb. In some instances, I silently pray that I won’t be asked to go more into detail.

The majority of people don’t want to hear about your problems because they’re expecting this part of the conversation to be short — “Good, how are you?” It can be embarrassing to bare your soul to someone, the discomfort raging on in your head. But I have seen how being vulnerable and open can also be a worthwhile risk to take.

Solely because I have had deeper conversations extending beyond “I’m OK,” I have been able to see how I am blessed. After getting things off of my chest, I can get out of bed every morning, remembering how fortunate I am regardless of my pain. My dad told me the truth that this part of my life will not be the hardest stretch of time I will experience. There is a mix of comfort and disappointment in knowing the worst is yet to come. I’m 20 years old and still having good days amid the difficult ones. Dude, you’ve got a long way to go in life, I tell myself. So keep going. 

I realize that I am fortunate through difficult times. I really am OK. What lies ahead will be more than fine. Though my emotions can be out of whack at times, I’m learning how to be complete in my faith and resilient, while also being able to unpack my emotional state through more in-depth conversations. Even though I can be a baby and mope sometimes, I can’t complain because I’m not facing an unbearable battle. What’s more, I have support from my family, friends and God.

I wouldn’t have been able to have this mindset without the people who have pushed me beyond saying just “I’m OK.” Without people like this, we suffer more from battles that remain internal — battles that are haunted by past mistakes —by worrying about an uncertain future, sending us tumbling into self-deprecation. Situations may seem much worse than they actually are, and listening to your own thoughts alone can be a recipe for unhealthy thinking. Other people are there to help lead you to truth.

By having people in their lives to ask more than surface-level questions, people who are struggling can better flesh out their inner thoughts and come to new revelations. These questions help those struggling to realize what their specific “OK” really means. For me, saying, “I’m OK” means I can’t share all of my thoughts on my own. I need a push. And through being gently asked more questions, I can find that even as I face obstacles, I am not angry. I have hope, which a friend defined to me recently as a joyful anticipation for good.

Even so, there are still times I try to solve my problems by myself, times when I’m too stubborn to ask for help, times when I forget the help I’ve received before, times when it’s two o’clock in the morning and I can’t fall asleep. It’s hard to remember then that I have people who would still answer the phone if I called them.

I used to think I needed to keep all my real thoughts and anxieties to myself because I didn’t want to burden people I love with more problems. I didn’t want them to worry about me or to feel pressured to help me. I believed voicing my pain would be a sign of weakness, impacting how people viewed me as a man. But really, asking for help, facing all your pain and fighting through it takes a lot of strength. It’s badass.

People who say they’re OK may be strong, but we can’t face everything alone. We need people to guide and encourage us along the way; a lot more words can be unpacked from the standard two-word response. There need to be more conversations that start like this:

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m OK.” 

“No, tell me how you really feel.”

“I don’t know if you want to hear about all that.”

“No, I would. I care about you.”

“It’s a long story. Well …”

 

Chris Crowder can be reached at ccrowd@umich.edu.

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