When we say, “Hi, how are you?” we’re usually just being sociable and not really inquiring about one’s health or emotional state. But sometimes we are, in fact, asking, as when someone is recovering from an illness, surgery or the loss of a loved one. Then we say, “How are you doing?”
We wait for a response and then ask for details.
Now, when someone asks me, “How are you doing?” it’s often a reference to my chronic illness, my Parkinson’s. Or that’s what I assume. My usual response is, “Great!” which is received in a variety of ways – relief being the most common. Sometimes I say, “Great!” and the person asking responds with a touch of incredulity and wants to dig in a little deeper. There are times when I wish I could explain precisely how it feels to be living with such uncertainty, but I can’t.
At those times I’m reminded of the fable about a man on horseback who was being chased by villains and he came to a tiny Thoreau-like cottage in the woods, off the beaten path. He pleaded with the hermit who lived alone there to hide him from those who were chasing. There was no time for conversation – the hermit hid the man between his big mattresses.
Within moments the mob arrived demanding to know if the hermit had seen anyone in the area and risking his own life he said that he had not seen anyone for many days. Not willing to take his word for it, they searched the cottage, tearing it apart, causing a lot of damage. They stabbed swords into the mattress, and were soon satisfied that the fleeing man was not there.
When they were gone the hermit uncovered the hiding man who was miraculously unscathed and the man said, “I know you don’t realize it, but I’m the king of the province and those men were attempting an assassination. To show my appreciation I’ll grant you anything you want.”
Without hesitation the hermit said, “There are two things – first, to have my damaged little cottage restored.” The king said, “That’s such a trifling thing to ask! Consider it done.” Then he asked, “What’s the second thing?” The hermit hesitated for a moment then said, “Tell me what it felt like when the swords were being stabbed into the mattress.”
The king was furious. “First you insult me with your trifling wish to restore this little place when I could have built a mansion for you! Then you dare to inquire about my innermost thoughts when I was so obviously vulnerable! Tomorrow I’ll have you shot!”
The next day the soldiers arrived at the cottage with the king, they pulled the hermit from his little abode, tied him to a tree, and a firing squad got ready. The king said, “Ready! Aim! STOP!” Then he turned to the trembling hermit and said, “Your second wish has been granted! Now this lovely cottage will be fully restored.”
Our deepest thoughts, insights and emotions cannot be captured in words, no matter how eloquent. Profound experience transcends the limits of language. We merely have to tell our story, share our personal experience, and explanations are not necessary. What’s puzzling about this truth is that we find ourselves valuing the suffering that leads to such intimate understanding. Life is strange.