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“How are you?”

The polite answer – “I’m fine” – is simple enough when you are, in fact, fine. But it’s a dangerous question when the honest answer is something else. And when that’s the case, the questioner may not be prepared to learn how things are really going.

I have an illness from which I will not recover. Yet I am frequently asked how I am by people who know my reality. The honest answer – “I’m dying” – isn’t one they want to hear. And the polite answer – “I’m fine” – isn’t one I want to give because even on a good day, it’s a lie.

I once asked a friend with advanced breast cancer the too-simple-question. She said she couldn’t possibly know the answer and suggested I ask instead, “How are you today?” or “What kind of a day are you having?”

None of us can really know “how we are” on any given day. We can know how we feel, but not what’s going on inside our bodies. And it can be hard to tell by looking at someone that she is ill. If you look at me now, I look pretty much as I always have. My hair isn’t falling out, my skin tone is good, and my smile is pleasant. But I have ALS, a degenerative neurological illness for which there is no cure.

Even when the kindness behind it is sincere, I hate the “how are you?” question. I don’t want to discuss with everyone I see what it means to live everyday with a disease I know will make me less and less functional, and ultimately kill me. How fast this will happen is unknown, but that doesn’t make it easier to talk about.

What kind of day I’m having, or how I am today, is an easier question to answer: I’m tired or not, it’s easy or hard for me to walk, or I have too much going on to tell.

So unless you are prepared to take in all that an honest answer to “how are you?” might entail, ask something else.

With a Perspective, I’m Barbara Brenner.

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