How are you?

"Tired" and "pressured" aren't full answers to that question

Issue: "California school shooting," March 17, 2001

These days people are likely to ask me, "How are you?" with more than the usual perfunctoriness of standard social intercourse-which, in turn, obliges me to answer in kind.

But the fact is that being given carte blanche to disgorge one's thoughts does not come without certain pitfalls, as I have learned; and the whole experience has me taking a closer look at that universal pastime we call conversation.

Of all human enterprises, is there any so undirected-and yet so consequential-as the conversation? All other businesses into which men plunge themselves are conceived ahead of time, their goals projected in the mind, along with the steps leading up to those goals. No builder builds a house without a blueprint, no professor teaches a course without a syllabus, and even the family vacation is the object of much premeditation.

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Not so the conversation. It is a restless, meandering trajectory, a free ride to who knows where, guardrailed by no guidebook, proceeding along a labyrinth with as many trap doors and dogleg turns as the human imagination itself.

As you stand before the thrown gauntlet of "How are you?" are you not like the artist poised before the intimidating whiteness of virgin canvas, who with the first brushstroke slashes infinity to finite possibility? Which brush to use? Which hue? What fathomless Jungian welter of desires conducts you down one alley or another?

Perhaps people are more careless about spoken words than, say, about which drapes to hang in their garages because you can't see the little critters, and it is assumed they just evaporate into the ether.

Remember your last conversation? You met, by chance, in the pediatrician's waiting room. In 20 minutes' time you jumped from the weather to the latest Sue Grafton alphabet novel, and somewhere in between finished off the reputation of a third party, who, of course, was not there to defend herself (nor had she even entered your mind when you began your chat). Afterwards, all that human detritus strewn on the floor, you collected your child and went on your merry way. God only knows what seeds were planted there to root in fecund minds and sprout into some future fleurs du mal.

The Lord might just have well been talking about the conversation when he warned Cain, "Sin is crouching at your door, ... but you must master it." Fail to curb that corrupt comment, and before you can say "black thong," a flirtation will mutate into national disaster.

Jesus had conversations, so I went to them. Didn't find much go-with-the-flow there. He rode that tiger, baby, and not the other way around. The woman at the well wanted to talk water pitchers and arcane local theology, but Jesus wasn't goin' there (John 4).

And when an indirect answer was deemed more helpful than a direct one, that's what He'd do (Question: "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" Answer: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door." Luke 13:23-24). It seems you can actually direct a conversation when you have a goal-like the glory of God and the good of your brother (Ephesians 4:29).

Almost makes me think it's not a bad idea to prepare an answer ahead of time to tricky questions like "How are you?" (some folks call it having a testimony). It may seem a bit contrived at first, but then again it can't be worse than blathering out, unfiltered, the first thing that flits through your mind. Spontaneity, queen of American virtues, is not always all it's cracked up to be. "When words are many, sin is not absent" (Proverbs 10:19), quoth Solomon, who said neither too little nor too much.

Recently I came unprepared to a meeting where the dangerous question came up again: "How are you?" As I recall, I spent the rest of the day backtracking to do damage control for the things I spilled out there. It wasn't so much that my answer had been impious as inaccurate. "Lousy," "tired," "pressured," and "fearful" are true as far as they go, but such momentary dipstick readings don't give the whole picture. I neglected to mention "encouraged," "sobered," and "hopeful." When the Psalmist tells us to praise God, he's not commanding anything more than that we not skew the record, that we speak full reality. Our pain is the truth, yes; but God's grace and mercy in our pain is the greater truth. Mention both or hold your peace. "He who does not gather with me scatters."

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