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How to give a blessing

I didn't mean to give an honest answer when asked, 'How are you?'
By Kathleen McTigue
Winter 2011

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woman comforting another (©Willie B. Thomas/iStockphoto.com)

(©Willie B. Thomas/iStockphoto.com)

We’re asked a dozen times a day, “How are you?” Most of the time it’s not a real question and doesn’t invite a genuine answer. It’s more like an alternative “hello,” and we’re well-trained in the ritual response: “Fine, thanks.”

But every once in a while we are asked this question when things are really not fine at all. At those times—when we’re walking around in a little bubble of anxiety or sorrow—something inside us can suddenly balk at giving out the standard, meaningless answer. We are too hungry for an authentic word, too raw to pretend that things are okay.

The morning after my father died, following three days and nights of an around-the-clock vigil with my siblings, I had to go to the grocery store to buy a few things for dinner. When I arrived at the check-out counter and the clerk distractedly said, “How are you?” my brain went blank. I couldn’t say “fine,” or even “okay.” I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t even in my right mind. I was numb, sleep-deprived, and saturated with the mystery of our mortality. That’s the only explanation I have, because to my horror I found myself blurting out a real and honest answer. “I’m not so good,” I said. “My Dad died last night.”

With his hands filled with the apples, chicken, and bread, the poor clerk turned red and started to stammer. The people behind me looked longingly at the check-out lines they should have chosen, the ones that would not have placed them in earshot of the too-much-information lady. I was mortified at having revealed to an unprepared stranger just how not-fine I was. Everyone froze in this moment of uncomfortable paralysis—except the young man bagging the groceries, who had Down syndrome. He stopped moving completely, looked straight at me, and with a little slur and great emphasis said,

“I bet you feel really sad about that.”

The simplicity of that little expression of kindness and solidarity allowed both the clerk and me to escape. “Yes, I do. Thank you,” I said to him, and then I was able to walk out with my groceries and not feel quite so much as though I had just undressed in public. I thought about that encounter for a long time. The young man bagging groceries would be considered disabled, in thought, speech, and movement. Yet he was the only one able to offer what counted in that particular moment: He knew how to give a blessing.

Excerpted with permission from Shine and Shadow: Meditations by Kathleen McTigue (Skinner House, 2011).

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