I have reached that point in the semester where I find myself consistently hating everything and everyone at all hours of the day. I returned from Spring Break mentally relaxed and physically bludgeoned (learning to snowboard took a toll on my body), only to find that during my time off I had somehow managed to fall behind on seemingly all aspects of my life. Now, in my haste to catch up, keep up and get ahead, I can’t help but feel unbearably overwhelmed and overstressed. And from the looks of it, I’m not the only one. Almost instantaneously, everyone seems so busy all of a sudden. With less than four weeks of classes left, we’re all trying to finish strong. And as the end of the semester closes in, I can’t can’t help but notice an increase in the types of conversations that have become standardized here:
“Hey! Oh, hey! How are you? Good. You? Good.”
Cue brief awkward pause until someone delves into an explanation of what they did over Spring Break or what they’re doing this summer or how incredibly busy they are ALL the time. What gets to me, though, is the crux of the answer.
What a wonderfully generic response that tells you absolutely nothing about the other person’s personal or emotional livelihood. Congrats. You now know exactly the same information you knew five minutes prior to entering the conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. I do this, too. When I’m rushing to class or waiting in line at ABP, I’ll see a friend and ask them how they’re doing under the assumption that I’m going to get an answer like “good” or “OK” and then respond with something equally as generic. And sure, sometimes the conversation delves into other topics, but, for the most part, it stays on the same superficial spectrum it began on. Sometime I wonder if anyone who asks the question, “how are you?” ever actually expects a genuine answer anymore or if it’s kind of just this social norm we continue out of politeness.
But I don’t think people resort to this answer with the conscious intention of being dishonest or deceiving the listener. It’s just kind of something we’ve come to do naturally. We go to Duke. We go to this amazing school with amazing resources and amazing people and amazing opportunities. Everything’s amazing, so if you’re not, then there must be something wrong with you. You must be unappreciative. You must be ungrateful. Your problems must not be real.
And so we reiterate that we’re good, that we’re OK.
But “good” and “OK” are neither feelings nor emotions—they are placeholders. They are empty words that serve no purpose other than to remove the pressure of having to reveal anything real about ourselves.
Because I have felt a lot of things. I have felt happy, sad, ecstatic, lost, inadequate, hopeless—but rarely have I ever simply felt “good.” Rarely do I feel just “OK” or “fine” or any of the other meaningless filler words we’ve adopted into our vocabulary. I am alive, so aggregately I am amazing. But, comparatively, sometimes I am anything but.
I have been on this campus long enough to understand what’s so problematic about a culture where everyone is OK. Where questions like “how are you?” are answered in terms of how much we’ve accomplished lately rather than how we’re functioning as people. Where personal problems are swept under the rug in favor of constructing a more pleasant narrative. By conforming to a norm that we’re all doing fine, we perpetuate a climate that allows for the times when we desperately do need help to go unaddressed.
And when that happens, when people feel this constant pressure to conceal their sadness and hurt, eventually they break. I have listened in stunned silence to stories of prolonged pain and unbearable loss. I have seen people I know succumb to patterns of self-destruction and harm. I have watched people I care about break down right in front of me. And, through it all, I have watched as these same people insist that they are doing just fine. What's worse, though, is when it’s a relative stranger—when I see someone I barely know who is so obviously in dire need of help. And I wonder who is asking them how they are doing, and, more importantly, who cares enough to get an honest answer.
It’s OK to not be OK. But more importantly, it’s OK to express that. People aren’t mindless, indifferent robots with no capacity for emotion. More often than not, they want to hear about your struggles, and they probably want to share some of their own, too.
I’m trying this new thing where I refrain from uncommunicative, nonspecific answers. I’m trying to be honest. So, next time you see me eating at the Law School or studying/people-watching in Vondy (basically the only two places I exist), come have a conversation with me. Tell me about your day. Tell me about your life. Tell me about anything you want as long as it’s real.
I promise, I want to listen.
Michelle Menchaca is a Trinity sophomore and the editorial page online editor. Her column runs every other Thursday.