I was recently walking down the street when I passed someone and made eye contact. As our eyes met, it seemed only natural that we exchange some sort of greeting. This person said, “Hi.” I immediately responded with, “How are you doing?” Neither of us broke our stride and we continued on our merry way.
A few minutes later I realized that he never answered my question. Of course, I have a feeling that he ignored my question because I was no longer in earshot of his answer. The quality of his life, at that moment, did not matter to me. Somehow he sensed that. I asked him how he was doing but obviously didn’t care if I heard his response. Was he having a great day? Was he having the worst day of his life? It doesn’t matter, because at this point, I’m halfway down the street asking another total stranger the same question.
Why do we throw around that phrase (“How are you?”) so flippantly? Are we really that thoughtless and apathetic towards our fellow man? Are we so self absorbed that we could ask such a personal and thoughtful question and not care about their response? Could we really be that insensitive and uncaring? Um, yep. At least I can be.
It seems to be another example of how a word or phrase in our English language has lost it’s true significance. Like the phrase, “I love you”, it can often sound hollow and devoid of its true meaning when it leaves our lips. Instead of it being a sincere question of concern (“How are you?”), it has turned into a casual, passing, irrelevant greeting. Instead of really desiring a truthful answer, we prefer a brief lie. And the number one indicator that we don’t truly care? We are physically or emotionally absent for their response.
The problem with using this “verbal check up” on certain people is that we may not desire or like their answer. We just might hear something that will coerce us to respond and get involved. Unconsciously, we only ask this question to “safe” people. If we think the person is a low risk candidate, we will offer our question of fake concern. Subliminally we think something like, “They look normal. They look healthy. They look like things are going well. They know I’m not really asking for an honest answer. Ok, they are safe to ask.” It is for this reason we do not ask this same question to the homeless man, emotionally unstable woman or the person we know whose life just fell apart. I mean, who has the time or energy to listen to the laundry list of problems?
Imagine if you heard the following answers from your casual question, “How are you?”
- “I’m not doing well. My spouse and I fight most every night.”
- “I’m broke. I just don’t know how I’m going to pay my electric bill or feed my kids this month.”
- “I’m lonely. I feel like no one out there cares for me.”
- “I’m struggling. I am addicted to (alcohol, porn, drugs, sex, gambling, etc) and can’t seem to get victory over it.”
- “I’m worried. I have a lump in my chest and am afraid it might be cancer.”
- “I’m hurting”, “I’m mad”, “I’m upset”, “I’m frustrated”….
Now what do you say? “Whoa! T.M.I.!” Did you really want all that information? Now that you have it, what are you going to do with it? Will you see them through to a solution? Or, was it merely an empty question disguised as concern?
You can imagine the absolute shock on the disciples face when Jesus asked to speak with a man named Bartimaeus. We are told in Mark 10 that Bartimaeus is blind, a beggar and sitting by the side of the road. If there is anyone you do NOT want to ask a question to, it’s a man like Bartimaeus. Anything out of his mouth is going to require something of you. Minimally, you are going to have to listen to a few minutes of complaining. But, depending on what he says, you may actually feel obliged to get involved. With a crowd of people around Him and a very busy schedule, Jesus stops everything and asks Bartimaeus a servant’s question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus doesn’t have to ask how he is. He already knows. Instead, He asks the follow up question, “What can I do for you?”
THIS is why we don’t ask “How are you?” and mean it. Because, deep down, we are afraid that if life isn’t going smoothly, we will have to ask what we can do to help. And for many people today, life isn’t going smoothly. That is where things get messy. If we were to be brutally honest, most of us don’t mind helping anyone as long as it does not cost us any time, energy, money, sweat or tears. Asking the question is easy. Sticking around for an honest answer is not. The question involves our lips. Their answer involves our life.
Jesus stuck around for an answer. Bartimaeus wanted one thing, the ability to see. The question was asked and Jesus didn’t leave until a sufficient solution was provided. Why don’t we ask the same question of concern to others? It’s not because we are afraid of being asked something we cannot deliver. It’s actually the opposite. We are afraid of being asked something we CAN deliver. A simple question to others really turns into a question to us. If they are not doing “well”, what am I willing to do about it? My commitment to their well-being greatly impacts the sincerity of my concerned question.
Let me encourage you to do two things after reading this blog.
- Be honest. The next time someone asks you how you are doing, be brutally honest. Don’t say what they want to hear. Say what is on your heart. If you truly are doing great, say so. If you are really hurting, say so. They may need to struggle with your answer more than you need to struggle with your pride to sugarcoat your response.
- When you ask someone else that question, wait around for an answer. Be prepared to be a part of the solution. If you cannot help them directly, perhaps you can begin to gather resources to offer a solution. If nothing else, perhaps your friendship and concern can provide them with a level of support and hope they did not have previously.
Before Jesus’ question, Bartimaeus was blind, begging and homeless. After His encounter with Christ, He was able to see and walk with a new purpose in life.
One concerned question. One honest answer. Another changed life.
Ask. Listen. Help.