When I was just out of college, if someone asked me how I was, I used to give it some thought and answer honestly. “Yeah, OK, although I have to say, I’m somewhat conflicted about my desire to eat meat and my moral certainty that truly, there is no defensible rationale for placing humans above animals in the hierarchy of being. You know?” (Did I mention I went to Wesleyan? Before it was considered, like, a first-choice school? It became thus not long after I graduated, but I have decided my leaving had nothing to do with its rise it status.)
I quickly learned that out in the “real world,” that cruel, harsh place where there were things you had to do besides attend interesting classes and ponder your sexuality, unless the person asking how you were was your mother or a friend who genuinely wanted the answer, you were simply supposed to say, “Fine, thanks.”
It didn’t matter if you were deeply depressed about a breakup, the Rodney King beating, or Michael Jackson’s disappearing nose cartilage. “Fine” was what people generally expected to hear, and if you took too long to say that, their eyes started to glaze over and they shifted their weight as if they needed to pee. The appearance of competence in the real world (not to be confused with The Real World, which had not yet debuted) felt critical.
Of course, most of the people I mixed with back then were my own ageish, and so we were all in a big hurry to appear like we had it all together. I wanted to demonstrate, definitely to my casual friends but mostly to myself, that I was making good choices. So once I got used to reflexively saying I was fine, because that’s what people expected to hear, it became what I wanted to believe.
How’s the new job? New guy? New apartment? Oh, fine, good! I’d say, even if I had mixed feelings or anxiety, because stepping into a big steaming pile of feelings with someone who might be anticipating a simple “fine!” meant showing a crack in my facade. I wanted anyone else to think I had it all together in part because it helped me believe it, not to mention prospective employers. I didn’t want to look too closely. What if I didn’t have it all together? Would anyone want to be my friend? And if I didn’t have 700 friends, who would askÂ how I was doing? If no one asked, to whom would I claim to be fine?
Life as a Formerly, of course, is different. I don’t feel as though “fine” has to be my answer anymore, no matter who is asking. That’s a huge relief.
Just today, a friend inquired as to my well-being. We’re both Formerlies, with kids and families and work to do and ceilings caving in, so she has no more time to hear my views on vegetarianism than I have to think about them. But because we’re Formerlies and she took the time to ask–given the fact that she has so little time–means she wants to know. I give it some thought.
In my head, I enter the data to do the calculus: health, job, blog, husband, marriage, kids, aging parents, fear of identity theft, weird formaldahyde smell in car, childrens birthday party, whether I bought the right mattress, perimenopause…clickclickclick…equals…
“Fine. I’m doing fine, thanks for asking.” And it was the absolute truth. And that’s all she wrote.
Photo by Greefus gone fishin CC
April 24, 2009 at 8:43 am
I’m kinda confused: I’m not really clear whether you’re saying being a formerly makes you feel fine, or has changed the way you respond when the question is asked.
I feel less fine than I did back then, which has to do with being more tuned in to the complexity around me, and the emotional variations inside me, and to turning 40 and wondering whether my life is everything it’s “supposed” to be. So I FEEL farther from “fine” than I did then.
As for responding to the question, I guess I’m a bit more comfortable giving a “real” answer to the question than I was when I had just graduated from a second-choice college. Although I can’t quite follow your arc: you’re saying you were honest at 21, less honest from 22 until you became a formerly, and you’re more honest, but actually fine, now? I thought this whole concept was binary, BF and F (Before Formerly and Formerly).
But I don’t think Formerly status is really the main “driver” (as accountants say) of “how are you” responses. Instead, I think it’s intimacy of the relationship, and openness of the askee. One’s overall approach could change over time, but I think most people have a basic personality type their whole lives.
For example. My first cousin died at 21 in a car accident 5 years ago. The whole community focused on the family for a few weeks or so, and then went back to their normal lives, and in some ways expected his family to do so too. I’ve talked to my aunt (his mom) about the experience of talking to people a year, two years later, or even now. People ask “how are you?” It’s very clear to her that most people don’t really want to know. So she says “fine.” A few people (not all of whom are close to her) really do, so she talks about how she’s feeling, the loss that is still acute years later, and how it affects her everyday life.
This seems like an extreme version of a universal phenomenon, one that is only marginally age-dependent. Maybe when I was 21 there was no one I trusted enough that I could really expose myself in response to a “how are you?” I’m not sure. But I think you’re right when you identify the lesson everybody learns: “unless the person asking how you were was your mother or a friend who genuinely wanted the answer, you were simply supposed to say, ‘Fine, thanks.'” Yet that’s a lesson people learn at different ages, and seems unconnected with settling into ourselves at our age.
Speaking of which, I was chatting recently with a therapist who said that in his experience, around this age, people generally transition into their “higher selves,” a concept I didn’t fully understand, but which seemed to be some sort of becoming a more permanent version of one’s self. He didn’t use the word “formerly,” but maybe that’s what he meant.
April 25, 2009 at 2:55 pm
I like this post a lot!
Joel, my interpretation is that we are constantly managing difficult lives and in some ways life becomes more complicated as we get older. (We may have kids, or health issues, and are managaing relationships, bills, mortgages or rent, whatever.) People still don’t always have time to engage, especially the casual co-worker or passerby. So in much of our interactions, what can we do but say to quote Steph, “Fine. Iâ€™m doing fine, thanks for asking.” And if one can mean it, like she suggests, that is a victory! In other words, my interpretation of the blog, is that with age comes perspective!
I love the idea of us transition in our “higher selves.” The last couple months I have felt that way myself. I am completely nonreliguous, but do feel like the meanings that matter to me in life have become more clear and I understand more of the many tools I have to respond to them. So… Wow! Being a “formerly” actually rocks! (So long as we can keep the boat afloat…)
April 25, 2009 at 2:57 pm
By the way, Joel, I clicked on one of you links awhile back, and was interested in your efforts on sharing veganism with others through humor! I have been a vegetarian 24 years, but am just recently starting the transition to veganism. I’m not yet nearly as healthy as you are, but find your lifestyle really admirable!
April 27, 2009 at 9:46 pm
Of course not, Julie. The only people who are as healthy as I am are dead.