I’ve written twice before about the ubiquitous American greeting, “How are you?” (November 4 and 21, 2009). This question is mildly annoying to me in moderately stable times, but in times of instability and discomfort it is downright excruciating. My current coping mechanism for this particular social anxiety is to divide people who insist on asking me this question into two groups. The first group is much larger by far; to them I ignore the question. If I say anything in response at all (and I often don’t) it’s something entirely non-sequiter like, “The light bulb in this room seems to be burnt out.” The second group is more difficult to handle. These are people who actually might really care how I’m doing and who I might really want to tell something about my current situation. For weeks now I’ve been pondering how to answer these friends and the best I’ve come up with is, “That’s a complicated question.”
One major complication is that the question itself seems wrong. I just can’t subscribe to the notion that my emotional state is the most central piece of any situation. A question that comes closer to the mark is, “How is the world you inhabit?” A good friend might follow up by asking, “How are you feeling about living in that world?”
When I was a freshman in high school, I took a sophomore class, Geometry Honors, for math. Some very cute and popular sophomore boys were in that class. (Too bad I don’t remember any names, because those who went to high school with me and read this blog may recognize the names and say to themselves, “Oh yes.”). We were assigned seating according to our last names, which put me right next to two particularly fine examples of cute sophomore boys. Unfortunately this seating arrangement also put me in the back of the classroom.
Our teacher was a Chinese woman with a heavy accent, so I could barely understand anything she said. Given the company I had in the back of that classroom, I refused to wear my glasses in class, so I couldn’t see anything that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. I had absolutely no idea what was going on in that class beyond a two foot radius of my desk.
When mid-term reports were sent home, my parents were shocked to learn that I was failing math, a subject I had never had trouble with in all my previous years of school. I finally got the contacts I’d been asking for and my parents sent me to a tutor.
It turned out that we’d been working on Cartesian geometry and the equations for a line (one of which is y=mx+b, which may ring a bell to some of you). I got it right away and I’ve had little trouble understanding math since then. I majored in math in college and I worked for many years as a math teacher. It turns out that Cartesian geometry is the basis for a lot of more advanced concepts in math, so until you go beyond three dimensions, you can do a lot of math by understanding how lines and graphs work.
Lines remain my favorite mathematical concept – both to teach and to think about. Even now, when my years of teaching math are far behind me, I lie in bed and think about how I would explain the equations for a line to a friend or even a stranger at the post office.
Sometimes I have no choice but to have faith that God will take care of me. And God always does. It’s uncanny. One minute I can’t imagine how I’ll possibly proceed and a week later things are clear and the future looks bright. Of course, sometimes God takes more than a week to take hold of my life, but, ultimately, I’m always cared for.
Henri Nouwen has an entire book called The Wounded Healer, about transforming our deepest wounds into profound gifts. I took a memoir class last summer in which we were challenged to remember the worst, meanest thing that was ever said or done to us and reconstruct that memory into rich fodder for our writing. A friend of mine often reminds me, “There is more help in the world than you could ever imagine.”
That’s the essence of God in my life, transforming my most tragic, awful moments into greatness. So, when I can’t imagine how I’ll get myself out of this mess, I cling to my cross and say over and over, “God will take care of me.”