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The Danger of Being “Fine”

“I’m fine.”

“Just great!”

“Doing well, thanks.”

No matter how we’re actually feeling or doing, it’s generally considered a matter of American etiquette to put on a cheery face and respond nicely to anybody and everybody we meet who asks the quintessential question of politeness: “How are you?” Even in the face of grief, loss, injury or suffering, you’ll hear folks attempting to respond to the question with as much positivity as they can muster.  It’s almost reflexive.

Have the flu or broke your arm? “Oh, I’m doing OK, really!” 

Just had a 24-hour labor ending in a C-section or finished a round of chemo? “Oh, I’m just a little tired. I’m sure I’ll be on my feet in no time!”

Someone you love passed away? Going through a divorce? “Oh, I’m ‘getting there’ one day at a time!”

While societal customs insist we put on our bravest, happiest attitude for everything from the casual encounter on the street to the concerned inquiry from a friend, are we really doing ourselves any favors by defaulting to “fine?”

 In this Washington Post article from last July, pediatrician Dr. Smita Malhotra talks about shifting her outlook on defaulting to a happy face after she realized she was lying to her young daughter about her feelings.  She comments that, as a physician, she can clearly see the damage that forced positivity has on mental health:

“By constantly telling children to “turn that frown upside down,” our society sends them the message that being sad is almost unnatural. That it is something that needs to be fixed immediately … In my work as a physician I have seen increasing numbers of children and young adults being put on antidepressants. In many cases, these drugs are needed … But sometimes, they are used as a way to avoid dealing with sadness.”

Dr. Malhotra goes on to explain how mindfulness and honesty about one’s own emotions is a healthier choice that leads to greater resilience, more empathy for others and a realization that we do not have to be defined by our feelings.  Her column comes from a secular and medical viewpoint, but her words also have great value for those of us who live the Christian life. What she’s talking about is actually directly related to one of the Ten Commandments. Number Eight, specifically.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Before you go feeling panicked you’ve got one more reason to head to the confessional, let’s put the brakes on for a moment.

It’s not a mortal sin to let “I’m just fine,” slip out of your mouth when someone asks you how you’re feeling.  And it’s not immoral to want to protect others from your own suffering, or keep your personal problems private, or put on a happy face, or make the best out of any bad situation.  The Catechism summarizes the Eighth Commandment as “forbid[ding] misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others.”  It defines a lie as “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”  It also makes clear that intention and circumstances often define the gravity of a fib, and that we’re never bound to reveal information to someone who has “no right to know it.”

But it’s also not being needy, or too negative, or a “complainer” to be politely open and honest with anyone, even a stranger, who asks what’s going on in your life.  In fact, this approach has a lot of spiritual benefits to recommend it.

Displaying our mental, physical and spiritual wounds to those who inquire about them grows us in humility and truthfulness.  It makes us vulnerable like Christ was vulnerable, but it also allows others the chance to be Christ by ministering to our needs.  It opens up channels of trust by allowing others in our lives to see our true selves, and it helps us all dispel the widespread and anti-Christian societal illusion that the only people worth associating with are the ones who “have it all together.”

So the next time you’re having a bad day and someone asks you how you are, pause a moment and considering answering more honestly.

“I’m struggling a little today.”

“Oh, my heart hurts over the things going on in the world.”

“I’m working on feeling positive this morning, but I’m not there yet.”

“Not so well. Actually, could you help me with this?”

You might feel needy and awkward, but you might also find God’s comfort and love hiding in an unexpected place. 

And that is just fine.

RESOURCES

 

DBSA {Depression, Bipolar Support Alliance}

 

NAMI {National Alliance of Mental Illness}

 

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE

 

MTHFR {genetic mutation associated with depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia}

About Liz S.

Liz Schleicher is a Midwestern Catholic wife and working mama of one. Mental illness has visited her family to the third and fourth generation, and she battles to see the truth and beauty of each day. She blogs at St. Dymphna's Daughter and leads the conversation on Facebook at Catholics with Depression.