“How are you?”
More often than not, my default response to this universal question is an equally prevalent one:
(Popular variations include “I’m good,” “I’m okay,” and “I’m alright.”)
Why don’t I give details, go deeper than the surface, maybe even pour my heart out?
Well, I usually don’t because I’ve come to repeatedly assume that when most people in most settings ask how I am, they don’t want a negative or lengthy response.
(Close friends and family are often exceptions but not always.)
I assume that people just want to tick a box of social etiquette from the comfort of their own reality, not get pulled into mine.
Or that, at best, they would appreciate a positive response that wouldn’t shatter the fragile peace they’ve managed to put up as a shield around their life.
I assume (quite rightly) that everyone has their burdens and concerns, and I’d be damned if I piled on top of all that weight.
I assume that by assuming these things, I am being considerate of other people.
But what if all I’m doing is projecting who I am on them?
What if I’m just so used to survival mode that I expect everyone else to be that way?
Listen, survival is a terrible thing to carry on doing for a long time.
I don’t mean staying alive. That’s mostly alright. What I mean is staying alive under particularly difficult circumstances.
There’s probably a medal for resilience in some parallel universe but here on earth, when we’re forced to be resilient for too long (‘long’ is subjective), it conditions us in ways that should not be celebrated.
(Conditioning, like an evolution from merely stealing to survive into being a career criminal – a transition from what was an arguable necessity to a lifestyle.)
You see, to practice survival is to be in a state of flux, and no one is ever settled in flux even if we like to act like we are.
(We often do this acting to inspire confidence in our own selves or, sadly, to keep up appearances.)
In flux, we’re occupying a space that isn’t ours to call home, and nothing is predictable away from home.
We learn to get by, often by any means.
We soon come to expect hardship, to anticipate unkindness, to never trust the generosity of strangers.
We settle, finally, into an unsettled state of being. We’re always the watcher on the wall, never at peace even when there’s no visible war.
And even then, we don’t see much.
Even at its clearest, our view is one that only shows us our own back, because that’s all we ever want to watch. We live to fight for life, even when no one is threatening our existence, and we hurt ourselves and other people in the process.
It’s self-preservation and not much else.
I know this state of being, so whenever it’s time to step up and say something personal to the audience, I clear my throat a few times then just walk away from the microphone.
Of course, I walk away because what’s the point?
By saying nothing, I’m guaranteeing that those who don’t know how I feel will never know.
More importantly, I’m bottling up things that I’m better off expressing, feelings that need air.
Even when there’s no reason to, I’m holding back as if my life depends on it. I’m reinforcing everything bad that I’ve learnt from living in survival mode for so long.
And naturally, I expect that everyone else lives that way.
Not everyone is suffering from the post-traumatic stress disorder that leaves us acting much lesser than our best selves.
Some people have left survival mode behind.
They have realised that being a decent human being isn’t just about being good to other people, it’s about being good to yourself as well.
And when you finally (unlearn self-imprisonment and) learn to extend the same courtesy you extend to others to yourself, it could trigger the kind of leaving behind that will allow you to find a better version of yourself, for you and for the world.
I’m still learning.