I meet my neighbor in the elevator. We greet each other, smile, and exchange wishes for a good day, capped with a prayerful “Besorot tovot.” But thankfully, by mutual agreement, we don’t ask what has become a loaded question during these agonizing times: “How are you doing?”
In “normal” times, that tends to be an enquiry devoid of any great interest on the questioner’s part. It is expected to be followed by a similarly rote response, such as one of these short, pleasantly agreeable, uninformative options: “fine,” “OK,” “b’seder,” or “Thank G-d”/”Baruch Hashem.” (And if you happen, unfortunately, to not be doing great and decide to give an honest answer, the person who asked just might mutter “That’s nice” and blithely move on before you can finish your sentence.)
With the ongoing war and its heart-wrenching fallout, however, the desire to avoid this deceptively simple query might be enough to make you want to cross to the other side of the street. The problem is not whether the questioner’s interest in your welfare is genuine – if anything, people care more about each other than ever before – but that many of us are simply not sure how to respond.
How are you doing? The question itself underlines the heightened sense of uncertainty most of us are feeling but try to bury in the business of the everyday. When confronted with this heretofore throwaway line, I’ve taken to turning my hands out and shrugging, close-mouthed, as if to say – and this is truly the most truthful answer – “I don’t know.”
We are all worried, pained, distressed, and fearful. We’re anxious about our loved ones in uniform; those whose children or spouses are in the combat zone, even more so. (That neighbor in the elevator? His son is fighting in Gaza.)
At the same time, in light of the horrors that many have suffered, hopefully we feel blessed and thankful for our blessings – not least of which is the privilege of living in Israel, even now, especially now, as stakeholders in the story of the Jewish people in our homeland.
Yet even if we’re having a relatively good day (relatively being the key word), the heaviness of the situation spirals through the air like smoke. The faces of the hostages leap off the posters, soldiers home for a break carry their fearsome guns to the grocery store, warplanes rumble overhead, and the flags on every surface evoke pride tinged with pain.
Navigating the emotional craters of this war is like balancing on a seesaw: Be hopeful, be proud, keep the faith…Feel the pain, remember those who have yet to return, and those who will not be returning…Care for others, engage…Protect your sanity, don’t get mired in bad news…
So how are you doing?
Is it all right to say “I’m OK”? Is it even OK to be OK? And if at the moment I’m annoyed about a mundane, comparatively minor problem, like traffic or the gas bill, is it insensitive to gripe about that while mortal battles rage?
To eliminate this small but persistent source of turmoil, I suggest drawing a line through the autopilot question-cum-greeting and finding a less fraught alternative for casual conversation. For example, we can inquire about the person’s family instead, thus taking the focus off them – most people appreciate the opportunity to speak about their loved ones, especially their kids, no matter how old they are or what they’re up to. Another soft-edged approach is a semi-rhetorical statement such as “Tough times, huh?” Others can then open up and share if they wish or simply nod in agreement if they don’t. And how about simply saying “It’s nice to see you” – free of pressure and always well received.
It might not be possible to get off the seesaw, but we can at least give each other a hand staying in balance.