I remember hearing the story of a man who retired after a 30-year office career. He was astonished and saddened to discover that, looking back, it was as if every day was the same. It felt like the past 30 years of his life was only memorable enough to fill a single day; like he hadn’t actually been living at all.
We live so much of our lives from a place of habit and routine that it can be hard to slow down enough to invite true connection. It struck me the other day when I was checking out at the grocery store, standing across from the cashier. “How are you?” she asked. “I’m good, how are you?” I responded. “I’m good, thanks.” And that was it.
In that moment I thought: How many times a day do I repeat this futile, lazy attempt at human connection? I’ve spent most of my life stuck on this superficial level of interaction – and I’m tired of it!
Sure, I understand that the person ringing up my groceries isn’t my therapist and doesn’t need to know all about my deepest dreams and darkest shadows, but maybe I could at least do them the favor of actually telling them how I am and actually inviting a genuine reply. Is that so crazy?
Inviting Meaningful Connection
My friend, Ian, is a great role-model for this. When he gets the typical “how are you?” from a stranger, he takes the question seriously. He’ll reply with an insightful response, like: “Well, I’m pretty worn out right now, didn’t sleep so well and I’m not feeling as present as I’d like to be today…how are you doing?” or “I’m doing really well, had a fantastic run this morning and I’m feeling energized – thanks for asking! How are you?”
Now, it would be easy to imagine how this could come across as massively staged and inauthentic. But the reality is that Ian is being totally real. People can feel it. And the responses he gets are often pretty incredible:
People are often taken aback at first, as if suddenly awakened from a dream-state. Sometimes, their glazed-over eyes – worn from the trance of menial tasks repeated day-in and day-out – light up and regain a fiery presence, powerful enough to shift the energy in the room. Often, they accept the implicit invitation to be real and actually share a little about how they are, as well.
But why does this matter, anyway? Why should I bother someone with how I’m feeling, and why should I care about what they might be going through? Is it really worth making the effort to connect? After all, I may never see that person again in my entire life.
Why We Matter to Each Other
Our society does a great job of convincing us that we are isolated individuals who are disconnected from – and in fact often in competition with – one another. This individualistic story of what it means to be human is a relatively new one.
For tens of thousands of years, indigenous peoples across the globe have participated in a very different story – the story that we are all fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. In essence, it boils down to the belief that we’re all in this together.
Now, I’m not arguing that individualism is a bad thing, I’m just observing that all long-lasting cultures have embraced a more interconnected worldview. What might we learn from them?
What if we’re far more connected with one another than we realize? I think we’ve all experienced the impact that a single act of anger or a single act of kindness can create. They literally have the power to lift or dampen our entire day, or even shift the way that we view ourselves. The impact of that one simple act can ripple outwards in incalculable ways.
This is because our behavior in the world never occurs in a vacuum. We are constantly impacting and being impacted by other people’s words, actions, and energies. We don’t need proof of this phenomenon; we simply know it is true – we can feel it. It’s called empathy.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It’s this capacity to share in the experiences of others – the joy, the sorrow, the celebration, the grief – that reminds us of our interconnection and makes us feel less alone.
Every time we invite meaningful connection with another person, we open up space for empathy. And, in that space of deeper interaction, we catch a glimpse of our shared humanity; a reminder that we’re all interconnected – that we’re all in this together. A reminder that we’re never alone.
So next time someone asks “how are you?” – whether it’s a stranger in the grocery store or a friend on the phone – try being like Ian and consider taking their question seriously. Take a moment to pause and think about how you really are in that moment, share honestly, and then ask them the same question and listen carefully for their response. You’ve got nothing to lose, and you might just make someone’s day.
With fierce loving compassion,