In the months after my divorce, a longtime friend I see only occasionally gave me a precious gift. At a gathering of friends who had learned only recently of my separation, M approached me apart from the others, looked me straight in the eyes, and asked, “So, how are you doing…really?”
It was an insightful question, borne from M’s long familiarity with the manner in which I’ll always put a bright face on any kind of hardship. Not swayed for a minute by my blithe insistence in public that I was doing fine, M wanted to know for sure, when there weren’t other folks around–when just the two of us could check-in, friend-to-friend, and when I didn’t have to maintain a Public Face–how was I doing, really?
Fortunately in that case, my public face matched my private one: I was doing fine in the months after my divorce, and I continue to do fine in the intervening years, since M has moved away so I see him even less frequently now than I did then. But M’s question has remained, like a koan, for me to contemplate, turning it over in my mind like a well-worn stone. “So, how am I doing…really?”
It’s a question, I’m coming to realize, that I revisit every morning in my journal. After I’ve scribbled about a page and a half about my to-do list, the weather, or whatever I did yesterday–after I’ve scribbled, in other words, about the superficial logistics of daily life–I find my writing typically shifts and settles, hunkering down and around this one question like a dog curled around a juicy bone. “So, how am I doing…really?” Apart from the mundane Must’s of today’s to-do list, what else is going on? Apart from the frenetic activity of work, chores, and social interaction, how are things when I’m not doing anything?
During the decade I devoted to pursuing my PhD, my life had very little room for contemplation. One of the most personally troubling things about that long slog was the sense that my dissertation–this big, unwieldy project–somehow had taken over my identity. Whenever I’d run into a friend, family member, or acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a long time, or whenever I met someone new and mentioned that I was a graduate student, I dreaded the inevitable question: “So, how is the dissertation coming?” When you’re in the middle of a decade-long slog toward a goal that seems distant and elusive, the last thing you want is to have to explain, again, that you’re still not done. During those dark days when the end seemed nowhere in sight, another long-time friend, himself in possession of not one but two PhDs, once greeted me with words that were sweeter than honey: “I don’t care how your dissertation is: how are you?”
It’s easy to define ourselves–or to let the rest of the world define us–in terms of what we do: how is our job, how bright and well-behaved are our children, how impressive are our accomplishments, or how big is our investment portfolio. But how am I, really? When you strip away the things I do, the things I own, or the obligations I am beholden to, who or what am I?
Each morning, my journal offers a place where I can contemplate this question, in a place where there’s no need for me to keep a bright public face. In the rest of my life, I check countless other things: as a teacher, for instance, I’m always checking my students’ work, or checking the syllabus to keep us on-topic, or checking the clock to keep track of class time. If I don’t check these things, after all, who will? But when it comes to the question of how I’m doing, really, nobody will check that for me, either. If I’m allowing myself to get swept up in daily details, who’s to keep me from being swept away entirely?
Sometimes we each have to serve as our own best friend. Even if you have a friend like M to inquire about your genuine wellbeing, it helps to check in with yourself every now and again just to make sure everything’s okay, really.