First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

“How Are You?” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

October 3, 2006

It can be a greeting of blessing, comfort and engagement. Someone cares about your well-being! Someone has stepped out of their own narrow frame of reference to inquire about the reality of another. Someone has crossed over the barriers that separate us to inquire about the happiness, the health and the emotional state of a friend, a colleague, a family member or even a stranger.

On the other hand, this common expression of goodwill can be no more than a formal salutation; an ordinary ritual that is meant to be brief, casual and contained. Self-revelation is not invited. Honesty is not valued. The only correct reply to this kind of “How are you?” is “Fine.” End of conversation. Unless you want to return the favor and ask the questioner, “And how are you doing?” If he or she answers, “Never better” or “No Complaints” or “Great!” you can both go on your merry way.

But what if things are not “fine”? What if you have a whole litany of complaints? What if you can barely function? Is “just fine” the only civil exchange of pleasantries possible?

A friend taught me that during times of exceptional struggle, you can answer the “How are you?” question by saying, “Taking in air.” This establishes the bar at a nice low level. “I am breathing. . .I am here. . .I am not on a respirator.” Sometimes that is accomplishment enough. As 12-step programs understand so well (with “one day at a time” or “one hour at a time”) sometimes the simple act of getting through the day is a profile in courage.

Then there are the acronyms that allow you to answer all questions about your mental and physical health with the snappy comeback “fine.” Fine meaning:

Frantic Irritable Nervous (&) Exhausted

Fully Imploding (with) Numerous Emergencies.

Finally Inseparable (from) Narcissistic Egotism.

Fearfully Incapable (of) Noticeable Enthusiasm.

Feeling Intensely Neurotic (&) Edgy.

Frightfully Inarticulate (with) Non-stop Expletives.

The more common reply, “Good” can carry its own weight, if it is understood to contain the acronym

“Genuinely Overwhelmed, Occasionally Delusional.”

Yet exceptionally gracious days come to us all. Then we can answer questions about our state of being with both “positivity” and real integrity. When we say, “I’m wonderful!” it means the sun is shining and I’m delighted to see you, and I’m feeling rather hopeful about and grateful for this day that has been given to me. And, I’m looking forward to entering in to a longer conversation.

“Greetings” were never meant to freight the entire substance of human interaction and conversation. They are rather a symbolic salute, a brief welcome, a signal that we make to each other that we are aware of another’s presence, and that we are paying attention. No matter whether we are at our very best or at our very worst, it is a good spiritual discipline to face one another and speak.

But the truth at the heart of these exchanges is that we are rarely completely inundated by either total suffering or total happiness. We are usually navigating through a complicated mix of both good and bad, fortune and misfortune, comfort and worry. Which brings me to parishioner, Jeff Bailey’s reply to me this Sunday. To the question, “How are you?” he answered with a smile, “I don’t know!” This woke me up to the marvelous recognition that all of our assessments about the quality of our existence and the meaning of our moods are transitory and limited.

Probably the only one who genuinely knows “how I am” is God. Only an all-powerful source of goodness and truth and love would have the capacity to discern where I am on my spiritual journey. Me? I don’t have a clue.

I’ll keep answering, “Fine” or “Not so good,” using countless translations and imaginations about how I think my life is proceeding. But as a Unitarian Universalist, it is good to be reminded that ultimately none of us know the truth about the mystery of our own being. How we “are” is a work in progress. And this will be true, as long as we are “taking in air.”



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