It’s the question we hear over and over again each day, and at the same time the question that we ourselves regularly ask as well. I don’t know why, but I get the feeling it’s oftentimes just a gesture of habit, a formality that we don’t even expect an answer to. We live our lives passing one another so completely that we aren’t even interested in how our friends are doing actually, and the saddest part is, we aren’t even interested in how we are doing. Far be it for me to be able to totally avoid this trap, especially when I’m pressed for time and I ask the question only to sound polite ‒ but the other day something unusual happened that stopped me in my tracks. I ran into an old friend after a long time, I barely recognised him in the street; I was in a hurry, I had to get to a meeting at the office and when I asked him how he was, he said “Not well, they tell me I’m dying. How about you?” The fact that he was smiling as he said this was quite bizarre, and meanwhile I felt goose bumps all over my body and electricity running down my spine. And I stopped. It was difficult to find appropriate words, because comforting phrases would seem like a farce since I haven’t seen this person in so long and knew little about him. But, such is life and it happens to be our common ground, a river that flows continuously and everybody hopes it will never stop and that we’ll reach our old age, filled with good health and wisdom, and all this in an ultimately trouble free way. Lots of things can happen along the way and nobody can guarantee you’ll be ready for a blow or even expect one.
So, how am I? Is it even important right now? I seemed confused and lost in the middle of a city street, but I am not a person who runs, I would sooner describe myself as handling silent moments quite well, not letting it scare me, so I let silence wrap itself around me like it usually does, and just go with it. My friend persisted and asked again “Well, how are you?” To be completely honest, I don’t know what happened then and which strange mechanisms began turning inside of me, why I thought it was fair, not really fair but necessary to tell him how I actually was. Very tired. Scared. Not really bad, but not good either; somewhere in between, amid the earth and the skies. And hungry. “And what would you like to eat,” was his answer, as if it were totally normal for us to grab some lunch. A cold day, in which I only expected to walk from my car to the television building, changed into something altogether different. I didn’t even call to let my office know I wouldn’t be coming, I just turned the phone off and went for a burger with him. I always feel like eating junk food, when I’m low in energy or got up on the left foot; I stop thinking about bread and flour that are going to stick to my stomach lining ‒ I get a whiff of the onions and grilled meat and I give into pleasure. I become a little girl that eats with her hands and always gets dirty, like old times when Patrizia and I sat on a bench next to our high school, eating junk, drinking Coke and even topping it off with the biggest milk chocolate.
I listen to his story, which mostly sounds incredible, because we make so many mistakes in our lives and we always take things for granted, like we’re going to live forever. We forget to say “Thank you”, we forget our friends’ birthdays and our elderly parents that only need a phone call to brighten their day. We also forget about ourselves, of all the good things that happen every day, while we choose to focus on the negative instead, because it seems bigger, more powerful and important than the positive. But is it actually like that? We are so quick to put on a mask to prevent the world from hurting us, we have such difficulty speaking about our emotions and are reluctant to express them, because we always doubt other people would understand. That is why the answer to the “How are you” question is always the same: “Fine”, even if we broke apart like the most sensitive mirror that’s split into a thousand little pieces, even if we’re so preoccupied with our concerns that we’re only a shadow of ourselves, and even if we feel that everything is falling apart around us, and we’re a part of this castle. We don’t even ask ourselves, where the suppressed emotions go ‒ the small and yet so persistent and dangerous lies, which we tell to others, but mostly to ourselves.
I felt lighter when I said goodbye. It’s difficult to explain why, perhaps just because I had a good time and put my mask away underneath the table, on which there were two burgers and drinks. In the end, answering the routine question was not that hard. I decided to be more attentive to the people that are my world, ask them more often how they are and be prepared for their stories even if they’re not always nice and happy. And I’ll share my own, especially with those who matter to me, and tell them truthfully what’s going on inside my head. When I switched my phone back on, I realised that the world didn’t stop. When I came to work, my co-workers dealt with the meeting and organised the show without me. I thanked the secretary and her answer was simple: “You probably had something more urgent to deal with, there’s no problem, everything went on just like you were here.” I thought to myself, sometimes a life is hanging by a thread, and when you least expect it you get precisely the lesson you needed the most.