Honesty…can you handle the truth?

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human experience


“A Few Good Men”. The movie sticks with me all these years as a certain smell, like patchouli oil, might bring back memories of carefree college days for many (given you’re of the middle aged set or a hippie at heart).  A young Tom Cruise plays a lawyer and an inexperienced Lieutenant in the United States Navy.  He was given the unenviable task of prosecuting a case involving a young marine who was killed.  It was considered to be a weak case – a minor inconvenience.  Aside from the young marine killed, there was meant to be no harm, no foul – this was just a formality.

Along the way, however, the bored young attorney found his passion-his voice, while seeking the truth in this case, no matter what the cost. While an intense, experienced and extremely cocky marine Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson, believed that one does whatever it takes to protect his country, even if that meant going against written regulation or sacrificing one for the many.  Honor was a major part of the code.  Following the chain of command was to be respected and obeyed, no questions asked.

It’s one of those catch 22 situations where you cheer for truth, justice and the American way (and Tom Cruise, duh); yet almost applaud, and definitely fear, the Colonel’s deeply held convictions. Then it became clear.  You realize that this celebrated man’s “honor” was born out of narcissism and fear.  You learn that honesty, in whatever form it may take, is worth the sacrifice.  If the law of the land doesn’t hold true as intended, then the laws of right and good and just will eventually bite you in the ass anyway.

Let’s break this down to how truth affects each of us as regular human beings.   If honesty is so important, the American way and all…then how come when we take this down a notch or three, honesty is difficult at best and chronically ignored at worst? Let’s take even the most mundane of circumstances.  Someone you are familiar with asks you how you’re  doing either in passing while you’re exchanging glances in the meat department at a supermarket or just generally while at a social gathering.  Do you find you give the same lame, nothing answer to a simple “Hey! How are you?” as many others tend to?

Do you know where I’m going with this?  Ok, then, let’s all answer this together: How are you?  “FINE.”

I can’t think of a one word response to anything that I dislike more than that one.  Sure, there are a series of levels of this non-descriptor of feelings. There’s the enthusiastic, quickly stated, “just fine, fine and how are you?”  There’s the ambivalent response, suggesting she knows not what she is feeling, “I’m ok…fine, I guess.”  There’s the hostile sounding one, “FIN-AH!” And last but not least the flat line, non-emotional, you’re bugging me-let’s-just-acknowledge-each-other-and-move-on response.  Or “fine”.  Could this possibly be the most basic non-responding response there is?

And might we somehow get to the bottom of this?  Is there a way we could make it so that people actually said what they feel?  I am constantly making the assumption that if someone takes that 2.5 seconds out of their day to ask me how I’m doing or God-forbid, feeling, then I at least owe them the decency to make something more substantial up than “fine”.

Yet when I do respond with something genuine (and usually I do as I am quite literal, it seems) like, “well, I’m not doing too well actually.  My –”

I find that I’m interrupted with a “great!” or something similar and a view of the person’s backside briskly walking away. People often don’t even listen for a genuine response!  Is it because they “…can’t handle the truth!” as per Col. Jessup, or that they really don’t care?  I’m guessing the latter.  And I’d venture to guess that this “they” is a healthy representative of many, many “they”s all over.

I surmise that people use the question “how are you”? to make a connection, whether out of kindness, courtesy, obligatory small talk, or awkwardness.  Maybe all at once.  Is it a terrible thing?  No.  But it still bothers me.  It annoys me mostly because when I do ask people (and granted, I don’t do it willy-nilly), I actually want to know.  I do care.  I am interested. Or else I wouldn’t have asked.

Making connections is what people do.  It distinguishes us from our hairier four-legged relatives.  But heck, even they communicate!  This brings me to the big question of all questions: Are people afraid of being “real”?  Do people run from raw emotion so much that they just aren’t in touch with their feelings?  Where does “fine” fit into that equation?

Well, I took it to the streets of Bar Harbor, Maine, Ocean City, Maryland and West Chester, Pennsylvania asking random individuals (mostly sober ones), 1.) how do you generally respond to the question, “how are you?” in passing; and 2.) would you be comfortable actually telling that person how you really feel within that quick interaction?

The response was overwhelmingly “fine” or “good” for question 1; and “no, I wouldn’t be comfortable telling a person how I actually feel”, for 2.  Are you surprised?  No, probably not.  Also not surprising was the response that 14 out of 20 people polled said they didn’t think anyone really cared how they were doing, even after they’d been asked.

The remaining six said things like, “Feelings? what do you mean?…”, and another shook his head and said, “Oh, hell no. Nobody’s damn business how I think, feel or the like.  I just say s’up and walk on by, myself”.  Two young women with strollers and infants responded that they “sort of” cared, but never really thought about it.  And still another woman asked for my card and said she would love to chat with someone who actually wanted to hear how she was doing.

No wonder I get so much money for being in a profession that listens to people! And how sad is that, really?
Are people just conditioned to ask and respond in certain ways in order to get the transaction over and done with as fast as possible?  Am I destined to a life of caring when I ask the question and hoping people care when they ask me and I respond with sincerity?

Just so you know, the day I stoop to “fine” is the day I stop thinking for myself while being all consumed in my head. It will be the day that I really don’t want anyone to know where my feelings and thoughts are.  I will be guarded and in the need to move forward as quickly as I can to get back into my protective shell.  It will be when I am most anxious and feeling shame.  It will be when I go to the grocery store for milk only because my kids need to eat something and I end up in a long line praying that I don’t know anyone who might attempt to look at me closer, see inside me and maybe care enough to ask  how I’m feeling, only to wait for a response as I fumble for words that won’t come out too raw or honest.  What I might try is to say, “I’ve been better” or maybe “You really want to know?” just to test out the waters before diving in and giving out my heart to those who may just want to say “hi” and are conditioned to ask me how I’m doing when they don’t really care.

What I know is this: those who often don’t want you to ask, need you to.

PEOPLE: Handle With Care.

My Greeting Card To Those Who Want Honesty:

Thank You, Friend!

I want to take this time to let you know,

You brightened my day by telling me “no,

I’m not fine, and if you’ll stop and listen I’d like to take up some time.”

It meant a lot to me that you let me into your life.  You trusted me with feelings,

that discomfort, your strife.

I wanted to hug you right then and there.  You are precious,

you are worthy, you are my friend.

And I really DO care!

Empathetically Yours,



The Author

I am a licensed clinical social worker who just happens to adore the written word. I have had a private practice and am now writing a memoir on my life in the company of my father and many of my clients who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I hope to dispel some myths and break down some barriers for those with mental illness. I write out of need and complete joy, which I hope to convey throughout my blogs. The human experience is not exclusive to one group. I hope to appeal to most as I touch on some pretty heady material with some self-deprecating humor and raw emotion thrown in for good measure. I have four amazing children, one HUGE dog and a tolerant husband. I am blessed.

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