I was walking down the hall at the office. A person new to the department was walking toward me. As I passed her, I nodded and smiled and uttered the usual throwaway line. “How are you doing?” (The variation is, “How’s it going?”)
You don’t expect an answer. You’re being polite. But you’re not committing yourself to anything more than hearing a “Fine” in return. You have work to do, meetings to attend, people to talk to, all of the general busy-ness of contemporary work life.
“Do you really want to know?” she replied in an almost anguished voice.
She knew the politeness-in-the-hallway code. And something had prompted her to step out of it.
I stopped, and said what I didn’t really mean. “Yes. Are you okay?”
For the next 30 minutes (we moved to her office), a story poured out that seemed more like fiction than reality.
She came from a well-known and socially prominent local family. Her parents were always somewhere else, traveling. Her brother was in parts unknown. She was caring for an elderly aunt who alternated between lucidity and dementia, often in seconds. The aunt was terrified that someone would get control of her estate and have her committed to an institution, and for a very good reason: she herself had made a career out of doing exactly that – getting control of elderly people’s estates and then having them committed. To add to the mix, my new work colleague was being stalked by a distant relative, who himself was trying to get control of her aunt’s estate.
And all I had asked was how she was doing.
We became friends, and she became friends with my wife as well. We talked. We shared outside-of-work writing projects. We’d have dinner. It was only after we moved to a new town that our friendship gradually lessened. But our lives, and my life, was immeasurably enriched by that simple exchange in a workplace hallway.
None of us wore masks. My friend was feeling desperate. I decided to listen.
In The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, authors John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall cite three categories mask-wearers fall into.
Those who try to convince others they’re doing “just fine.”
Those who are still searching for the next new technique to solve their issues and problems (and are the target audience of the self-help book publishing industry).
And those who wear the “pedigreed” masks – the postcard-perfect people who have everything together, no problems, no messy stuff in their lives.
The normal answer my work colleague should have made was “I’m fine, thank you” and walked on. But she didn’t. Her response caught me off-guard. I could have immediately donned a mask, probably the pedigreed mask. I could have listened politely and moved on.
But I didn’t. I could hear the desperation and even fear in her voice. So I listened.
And it changed my life.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Faces,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.