Just Shut Up! I Don’t Want to Know

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By Bill Koch

A fellow at the gym asked me how I was doing. I said fine.

I courteously asked him how he was doing. He asked if I really wanted to know.

I said no.

We were both partially honest. I really didn’t want to know how he was doing. And he me.

Did he have leg pains? Were his kids OK? Was he paying his bills? Was he happy? Was he healthy?

The only reason why I remember him is because I’m writing this column about our exchange.

We do this so often. “Hey, how are you doing?”

And we respond – some of us rather exuberantly with Tony the Tiger’s “Great!” – just to make it appear we’re polite and civilized.

But of all the people in our everyday lives, how many of us are sincerely interested in hearing about other people’s well-being?

You’d be a liar or Tony the Tiger if you said most of them. Or you’re deceived. You may have a warm and compassionate heart. You may make Mother Teresa look irascible by comparison. But your mind – and ultimately your heart – isn’t capable of retaining and expressing that level of compassion.

So, it all comes down to one large and mostly vaporous façade of cordiality in our crowded communities.

Now, that’s not necessarily bad. A world without superficial enquiries about life and health would certainly be a bleak and dismal place, which would get progressively worse. 

And anyone who walks around with an air of crude “honesty” and self-centered callousness is with little doubt one of the worst expressions of humanity in our wayward civilization. In fact, those with the roughest exteriors are usually the weakest, the frailest and the most vulnerable among us.  That gruff, cynical wall serves as a barrier to protect a hurting heart in denial.

Nevertheless, the exchange with my gym acquaintance, ironically, was more alive than the countless others I make every day. It was real. It was transparent. It was genuine – without being maudlin or syrupy.

Another fellow at the gym – a former alcoholic brick layer with three or so ex-wives, bad joints and supposed Herculean abilities to lay stone – seems to have caught hold of this notion, to the horrendous extreme.

He tells you and anybody within a 7-foot radius everything (everything!) about his sad life, his tremendously hard work and how bad fate has treated him. On and on and on.

I won’t ask him how he’s doing. Because I really don’t want to know. He’ll tell you, oblivious of the world around him. And it hurts to listen, because I don’t want to be rude.

I know. I know. The poor little fellow just needs someone to talk to, a soft-hearted woman told me. OK. You go talk to him then.

Perhaps that lay at the crux of our human condition. We really don’t want to commit ourselves. We really don’t want to invest in each other. We prefer the well-trodden solidarity of our singular and familiar lives to the grating bustle of human society.

However, next time you are presented with the opportunity to engage with strangers or acquaintances, take the time. Contemplate the exchange. What’s really happening there? How are they really doing?

We do have two ears and only one mouth. So, shut your mouth and listen for a change. Make the investment. It just might surprise you.