Wednesday, January 04, 2017

“Are You OK?”

In any case, it was kind of you to share in my distress.  –Philippians 4:14

                “Dad! Come here!”  This exclamation is becoming increasingly a part of our household lexicon as my 11 year old discovers more and more fascinating things to see on TV.  I should feel honored that he wants me to join him and share in the experience, but it often interrupts more noble tasks which have my attention at the moment.  A recent “Dad! Come here!” pulled me from the kitchen to the living room.  My son’s channel surfing helped him come across Red Bull Cliff Diving.  Yes, supper would have to wait.
                Here’s the imperfect summary. Competitive divers travel to exotic locations to jump into water from about 90 feet above; best score wins. Some of the athletes look rather beaten up because they hit the water hard—9.8 meters/sec/sec works out to around 65 mph—the telltale kinesiology tape holding their shoulders, knees or backs together for one more dive.
                It was fascinating.  It was hard for us to determine what a good dive was and what wasn’t.  We just watched and followed the cues of the announcers’ ooh’s and ah’s accompanying artists at work.
                I noticed something else.  Safety swimmers waited down below.  Each time a diver hit the water, 2 swimmers went out to him.  The diver would give each of them the OK sign with both hands (4 OK’s in total) before the swimmers would leave him alone, let him swim to shore on his own to make another solitary climb to a perch 10 stories up, from which he would leap again.
                It was a rule.  No OK sign; no more diving; try again on the next stop. They had to tell the safety swimmers they were OK.
                “Are you OK?”  This is another question we often use.  Both cars move over to this side after the fender-bender, and the divers will ask each other.  Bump into someone harder than expected, and you ask.  40 years ago this along with “How many fingers am I holding up?” comprised the entirety of concussion protocol as we knew it.
                “Are you OK?” is also often used in our conversations with people who are suffering.  It is also a query often met with a polite, but less than honest affirmation.  It can be another way to offer a little comfort without all of that complicated obligation to commitment.  It can be another get out of the room free card.  It has become one of those socially acceptable questions fittingly answered with a socially acceptable response. Greetings and salutations.
                Long, long ago, I met with a couple who had lost a baby.  The hopes they’d poured into becoming parents were shattered because of the miscarriage.  We cried together.  They did a lot of talking, and I did a lot of listening.  Then the young woman sought her pastor’s counsel, “Can I ask you something?”
                I was already feeling a fair share of inadequacy.  Deep down I knew that my meeting with this hurting couple would require more than polite kindness and a sweet prayer at the end.  The soul requirement was coming.  Besides, they were positioned between me and my office door.  I couldn’t run away.  So, I let her ask her question.
                She choked back her tears and asked, “Why does everybody I talk to want to know if I’m OK?”
                I could also hear her contempt for the question and her weariness of having to hear it too many times.  My first response was, “Oh.”  It wasn’t the “oh” that typically accompanied shock, surprise or discovery.  It was heartbreak. That would have sufficed as my best answer to her question, but I went on, “They have no idea what to say to you, no words to help with what you’re going through, but they believe they have to say something.  They mean well.  They really want you to be OK, but they can’t make that happen.  If you tell them you’re OK that might make them feel better.”
                “But I’m not OK.”
                It’s interesting to me that in some cultures the gesture we use as the OK sign is used as a more vulgar expression.  I’ll just say sometimes OK is not OK, and you can Google the rest.  Here was a young woman who was hurting.  In her own experience she had hit the water descending at a bone jarring 65 mph.  She didn’t jump voluntarily. And though she was emerging from the dark, churning  sea of grief, she was “pretty far from OK”.   
It was time to listen more.

We have asked, “Are you OK?” with no expectation of having to endure an honest answer. We have asked as a way to protect ourselves from the “not OK” lurking beneath the surface of someone’s suffering.  When people have asked us, we have given them easy outs with our polite responses, and sometimes it’s because we didn’t want to be confronted by our own stories again.  Other times we have detected that they’re just trying to be nice.   The asking and the answering have been convenient attempts at self preservation.  But what if…

  • What if we really wanted to know?  Could we generate the will to ask someone, “Are you OK?” and then sit with them to hear them out as they answered?  On most occasions, we will ask this question to one of our friends. If we have been investing in the relationship with that friend we might develop the good intuition that kicks in to inform us whether she is or is not OK.  We might not finish each other’s sentences, but we know each other pretty well.
  • What if we really answered honestly?  “No, I’m not OK.”  Those could be the magic words which send the pretenders running.  OR they could be the way to let your friends know you are ready to tell them more.

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