“since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you”
Around midnight on Wednesday, Feb. 18, two of my writers texted me, informing me of the distressing event and dreadful loss we have all been informed of through several media the past few days. Upon reading the texts, my first thought (one that still lingers) was, “how did no one know?”
How did no one know something was wrong? I’ve learned since that the student, Alina, was a published, award-winning writer, and pictures showed me she was quite beautiful, radiant. And then it became clearer to me why any pain, anxiety, fear, even just exhaustion, that may have contributed to last week’s events may have gone unnoticed.
Beginning my sophomore year of high school, I developed symptoms of depression that, in retrospect, were abundantly clear. But it wasn’t until my mom called me one day as a sophomore at Wittenberg that I fully conceptualized something was wrong. She asked the usual questions: How are your classes? How are your jobs? Have you been having fun with your friends? I could talk about all of these things with unquestionable positivity. But then she asked me, “And how are you?”
I didn’t know that how I was was a separate question from how the tangential aspects of my life were. What a difference it made to know that the condition of my being was not entirely contingent on how well or poor my grades or relationships were, how much fun I was having, how well I was eating or sleeping.
Needless to say, I did not react as anticipated to the question; my mother, the saint that she is, is much better at putting to practice the understanding that we as people are separate from the impermanent conditions and situations around us.
That said, I’ve had illimitable regard for the simple question of “how are you?” since then, and I must implore others to feel the same. Many people are afraid of or uncomfortable with adding gravity to conversations with heavier questions like “so how is existing going?” but that is absolutely the most important question.
I wish there were a more comfortable lightness to that question, and less hesitation or need for careful treading associated with conversations that explore how someone is feeling. As suggested by poet e.e. cummings, our fixation with crafting a detached syntax in conversation to avoid emotional weightiness feeds shallowness and superficiality into our interactions. Personally, describing to people how my classes and hobbies are going gets tiresome, and I know you feel it, too.
Asking someone how the human experience is going for them is a vital component of all conversation, I feel, and not just the conversations we have when we suspect someone may be upset or tired or sick. One ought not conclude that because the peripheral elements of a person’s life seem to be gleaming that the person is, to put it simply, “okay.” And the discussion of someone’s emotional or spiritual condition does not have to be a somber one; your tone needn’t be one of concern, just genuine interest.
It would be insulting to imply that the recent tragedy could be so easily explained by this observation and assumption of mine; never would I assuredly place myself in the knowing of another’s agony. However, that does not diminish the relevance and urgency of my request:
Disregard syntax. Since feeling is first, ask the meaningful question of how someone is.