Among the first lessons in pleasantries that we all learn as children is to answer the question, “How are you?”, which we are taught to respond in all politeness with “I am fine, thank you.” Perhaps, in the days of yore when courtesies were being coined, and when people were kinder and more humane towards each other than in this robotic age, the purpose of the question was to show genuine interest in the other person’s well-being and express support if things were going south.

But of late, the question, “How are you?”, has begun to sound more customary that is responded in a standard manner – either “I am good” or “all well”. And then the conversation swiftly pivots to the business on hand. Most people move on as soon as the initial pleasantry is exchanged, with a few people daring to express a wee more – “could be better” or some even responding with a wry “surviving”. And there is an answer that has always kept me guessing – “I am OK.”

What does ‘OK’ in reality mean? Good? Not good? Or is it an ambiguous reply that one can interpret any which way, based on the context and the questioner’s disposition? Posed with a question on our well-being, seldom do we give an honest reply. How many times have we heard someone say, “Life sucks”, “Going through hell” or “not good”? At worst, people say, “going on”. But then why do we shy away from telling people the truth of our lives, if not at length at least the fact that not all is well? Why do we hasten to make people believe the lie of being well, alive and kicking? Because we all have been given to believe that whiners are not winners. We have all been conditioned to pretend to be at our best even when we are suffering because the world and people around us don’t like sad stories.

In a world that doesn’t think twice before inflicting harm on others but would like to stay out of harm's way, the natural inclination is to court happiness, which in itself is a paradox. If we don’t dispense happiness, how is it fair or possible to defy the law of the Universe to remain unscathed by our devious acts? What goes around comes around.

The rise and success of social media itself hinges on this need to seem happy to the world even when one’s life is at stake. Our external demeanour is governed by how we will be perceived by others, and for this, we never tell the truth. We never reveal the reality behind the mask of ‘I am OK’, carefully sugar-coating our travails with fake smiles and laughter. Our excessive need to be liked; to be appreciated; to make others happy often robs us of our freedom to cry or even sigh loudly. “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.” And we fear being alone like we fear death.

The reason for our practised lie of telling people we are fine might also stem from the fact that we don’t want people close to us or those who genuinely care about us to get worked up in our thoughts. We conceal many unsavoury truths not with a wily intention, but because we are convinced that making family and friends privy to our troubles might cause them pain. Yet again, we don’t want to cause undue stress and distress with our sob stories; we want people to be happy with us so that they may love us. Hence we lie over and over again – “I am good”. “I am fine.”

But of late, I have strived to be a little more honest than I have been before. The idea of being judged as wimpy or sullen for telling the truth doesn’t haunt me because it is what it is. By no stretch of imagination do I expect anyone to resolve my personal woes, but I am increasingly becoming aware of the adverse effects of feigning to be fine. I have divorced the notion that we must fake it till we make it.

I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that pain and suffering is endemic to human existence and there is no reason why we must either glorify it or negate it. There is a simmer in every heart and an uneasy tremor in every body. The acceptance of reality is the first step towards alleviating the bitterness and pain that come along with material life and tenuous relationships. If I am unwell, I might as well spell it out so the other person may know. Not in the expectation that compassion will flow instantly, but it keeps me from turning my life into a travesty.

Saying it aloud will elicit varied responses. From story topping to offering left-handed solutions, people will be very forthcoming in their views. They may be affected by my plight or be ridiculously impervious to my pain. They may probe further out of genuine concern or with the intention of feeding their gossipy nature. What they do with my answer is their look out. They can stew new stories or leave it by the wayside. They can offer me a shoulder or share in my happiness.

No matter what they choose to do, in my own defence I have only this much to say: Ask me “How are you?” and be prepared to hear it like it is. Of being ill, well or neither. The third option because sometimes it is hard to decipher how I am. Life is often a grey, obscure haze.

(Asha Iyer Kumar is an author and columnist based in Dubai.)

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