My wife is pretty sharp and knows how to get to the heart of things without much preamble as she did one morning as I creaked into the kitchen, head down, every joint and sinew mewling. I opened the conversation with a question – “How did I get so old?” Not missing a beat, she replied, “One day at a time.”
Anyone with friends or family in any sort of program of recovery will appreciate the pithy encapsulation of wisdom shared across all sorts and conditions of people, and I assume everyone is familiar with the equally incisive, “Carpe Diem”. Apparently this one day observation has some traction. I’m also pretty sure none of us need the reminder that we live a day at a time, no more, no less, although some of us are better about not wallowing in the past or projecting the future.
I’m so-so in the wallowing and projection arenas, working on it, but just when I thought I had a handle on this human interaction and compassion stuff, however, I heard an interview that let me see how far I have to go. The subject under discussion was grief and grieving, and while both are significant subjects, what struck me was a simple observation made by a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly. She identified the complexity in negotiating her life while grieving, simultaneously appreciating the concern and support with which friends approached, sympathetically asking, “How ARE you?”, and becoming increasingly maddened by the question, wanting to shriek, “How do you THINK I am doing?”
I have been a “how are you doing?” flavor of friend for years, supposing that asking the question was an invitation for a friend to talk about whatever complex of emotions were at play. This widow, on the other hand, was probably more correct in guessing that most of the people who asked really didn’t want to settle into a hour’s description of laundry undone and meals not made. She assumed that the question was well-intended, but essentially way too abstract to encourage anything but an upturned chin and a brave response; she often felt she had to take care of the person asking.
So, she suggests that a friend might say, “How are you doing today?”
It seems a minor shift in scale but is actually also a shift in tone. Today has focus. Today is real; today is right here and the “how” is in the present and specific. Today, she might answer:
“How am I today?
My husband died, and that is devastating, but you and I are here in this moment able to do whatever it is that we are able to do, and yesterday was different, and tomorrow may be different, but for now, in this instant, I am feeling sorry for myself because there’s no toilet paper in the house, I have to watch the series finale of our favorite show by myself, and I can’t seem to remember what it was that I went to the store to buy. That’s how I am today.
Oh, and I lost my car keys.
Oh, and it was probably toilet paper.”
I’m grateful for the suggestion that I ask about the present day as I don’t do well when addressing loss and hard times; I appreciate being told what is helpful. I’m also grateful for the understanding that almost any interaction takes on greater depth of sincerity if it is grounded in the present.
I’m often embarrassed, for example, when well-meaning folks ask about what I am doing with my life now that I am no longer keeping regular hours as a teacher. The hours were never really regular anyway, but I had a set schedule and lots of lists of things to do. You could have caught me anytime in the last forty-five years and asked what I was up to, and, for the most part, I would have been able to answer easily and with conviction.
“I’m grading papers. I’m teaching Hamlet.” Whatever. Today, however, not so easily and with considerably less conviction I answer, “oh, volunteering at the Festival, trying to get up to Portland to see my granddaughter more often, working on that play, and the article on the Giants, maybe cutting back the big bush near the pasture gate, but if it rains, I might not.”
I’m bored and distressed with my response before I’m halfway done and aware that none of my blather represents the actual reality of living in the place I do with the people I love. Were someone to ask, “What’s on your mind right now?”, they would get an ear full. Some of it would be fluffy, but if the question remained on the table, it could go to any one of the hundred places my brain takes me in the course of the day. I’m often in the middle of things, considering ideas I want to pursue in some way, but I’m equally likely to be worried about money, or intrigued by an author I’m reading, or stunned by things political, or moved by the heroism of ordinary people around the world.
So, sure, I’m fine. Doing fine. And I am. But each of us is travelling with burdens and joys, ideas and emotions, all of which shift and slide like the patterns in a kaleidoscope. When I sit with a friend looking through a collection of photographs, for example, each snapshot is a universe; every picture tells a story and a story behind the story, and another behind that. I appreciate having the chance to tell my stories and hope I can give others the chance to tell theirs. I like the snapshot; today is sort of a snapshot.
The interview overheard gave me practical information about offering support when possible, and compels me to consider any conversation an opportunity to ask for a snapshot, a picture of what is going on with someone in the moment. Today is plenty. As a lad I was told, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” a convoluted reminder that there’s trouble enough without inventing problems. Sound enough advice, I guess, but I’m going to suggest there might be some advantage in remembering that, “sufficient unto today is today.” Today is enough.