Saturday, December 4, 2010

How We Are

I sat in the vet's waiting room with Sirius one day and engaged in friendly conversation with a lady sitting nearby. The content of the conversation wasn't particularly memorable, just typical of two people passing the time. What I do remember is that her husband had taken the dog in while she waited, and he came out carrying their dog's body covered with a blanket. She burst into tears as soon as the door opened. He was quieter, though clearly grieving, and the two of them left quickly. Their purpose that day had been to have their pet put to sleep, and I'd had no idea.

It was years ago, but that otherwise-nonmemorable conversation with an unknown lady in the vet's office sticks with me.  That was a difficult day for her, and I did not realize until after our conversation. It reminds me that I often do not know the struggles of those around me, and I want to leave a little extra room for grace.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
(often attributed to Plato)

That vet-office memory was triggered after a recent interaction in a parking lot with a man who is familiar to me, but whom I don't know beyond nodding acquaintance. "How are you?" he asked as we neared each other on the sidewalk. "Doing well," I said, "and you?" "Good." He smiled, I smiled, and we continued our separate ways, not slowing or stopping. It was a nice, civilized, and completely meaningless interaction.

Again, I don't know this guy, and a friendly "How are you?" in passing is pretty much the same as a silent nod of greeting, a polite "hello" rather than an invitation to deeply personal assessment of one's life in that moment. But as I continued walking, I was particularly aware that I had no idea what this fellow's life was like, and our culturally established patterns of interaction won't change that a bit.

What bothers me here isn't so much the lack of depth in a brief encounter with a nodding acquaintance, but rather the conviction that such lack is also present with others, with people I see regularly and consider friends. I don't want to live like that, each putting on masks rather than being authentic with each other.

And so I will sometimes ask, "How are you?" in part because that is a culturally conditioned greeting. But though it is sometimes interpreted simply as a form of "hello," my intent is to make it a genuine question, seeking to better know those with whom I interact.

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