In the United States, it’s one of the most frequently asked questions, “how are you doing?” Passing someone on the street – “hey, how ya doing?” Getting ready to order your daily coffee from the Starbucks Barista – “how you doing, can I have a…?” Bump into a neighbor at the grocery store – “what’s up dude, how are you and the kids?” Find yourself in the south and it’s “how ya’ll doing today?”
In the United States, we ask this question to; people we know, people we don’t know, people we like, and people we can’t stand. We don’t even limit the question to humans – how many times have you or someone you know, saw a dog and said something to the effect of, “hey poochie oochie oohh, how are you doing dooooing sweetie pie?” The question is firmly installed within our culture. It’s more American than apple pie. Which makes it slightly disturbing to realize, I ask the question without giving two f*cks as to what your answer is.
When I see that Barista at Starbucks and greet them with a “how’ya doin man?” I’m not expecting Millennial Mike to answer, “you’re the 500th f*cking customer today to ask, “how I’m doing,” I wish everyone would stop f*cking prying into my life. How do you think I’m doing? It’s 6:45am, I’ve been here since 4:30am. I’ve been snorting macchiato’s all morning to deal with nosey assholes like you. Becky, the new chick can’t even make a cup of water, so I have to cover for her. My manager, Tim, just asked me to clean the sh*t stains off of the toilet during my break. And, I just had a lady yell at me for writing her name wrong on her freaking cup. So I f*cked up and wrote, “Vagina” instead of “Virginia”, GET OVER IT LADY! Now shut up with your “how’ya doin” and order your Tall, Half-Caff, Soy-Latte with Caramel Drizzle at 120 Degrees so I can go about my day, MAN.”
As this example proves, only in rare situations do we actually expect anyone to tell us “how they are doing.” Your therapist, your mom, your spouse, I’m guessing they expect to hear how you are doing. Everyone else – not so much. While I think it’s sad we aren’t all walking around the streets genuinely interested in hearing about the wellbeing of our fellow humans, it’s not reasonable to assume we can hold impromptu anger management sessions with surly baristas. However, I do have a proposal as to how we can alter the meaning behind the question, “how are you doing?”
Most people are familiar with Aldous Huxley through his dystopian novel, “A Brave New World.” Just before dying, Huxley published “Island,” his final novel about a utopian society called Pala. On the Island of Pala, the people have trained over 1,000 birds to mimic the word, “Attention,” to remind inhabitants to pay attention to everything they do. It’s a play off one of the Buddha’s most famous teachings – “do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” The simple reasoning for following this guidance is; if we look to the past, we are depressed, look to the future, we are anxious. In Huxley’s utopian vision, the birds help to alleviate depression and anxiety. I found the idea of reminders sprinkled throughout a society to assist people to live happier lives, unbelievably refreshing. Then I thought, why can’t we do that?
The reminders we are currently bombarded with provides the opposite of Huxley’s vision. Rather than assisting us to focus on the present moment, our surroundings are constantly reminding us that:
- We NEED new shoes
- We NEED a new phone
- We NEED a new car
- We NEED a better job
- We NEED to be skinnier
Through a nauseating array of radio ads, billboards, facebook feed posts, tv commercials, Instagram models, Youtube clips and more, our surroundings are filled with reminders of the underlying message “we’re not good enough.” Not good enough until we get a; new pair of Nikes, new iphone X, new Ford F150, new job off of LinkedIn, and a new body to fit into some tight stretchy jeans.
Unfortunately, I don’t foresee a day during my lifetime when Nike’s latest marketing campaign highlights a monk sitting in a cave, wearing no shoes and the tagline of “just meditate it.” Or a snazzy Apple ad imploring us to sit around a park, be extraordinary and talk, not into a phone, but into the earbud of another person. Without a mega-million dollar marketing budget to dominate the airwaves and interwebs, how then do we shift our culture from one that tells us “we’re not good enough” to a society that helps us to “pay attention to the present moment”? We take a phrase that has lost all meaning and give it new life.
Thankfully, we don’t have to train any birds to say something like “Attention,” the training has already been done for us. We just need to give new meaning to the words, “how are you doing?” If Nike can take the words: “just”, “do” and “it” to encourage us to buy a pair of sneakers, why can’t the words, “how”, “are”, “you”, “doing” encourage us to focus on the present? The answer is, they can. We just need to change our response to the question.
The next time you see me and say, “what’s up Dan, how ya doing?” I might give you an answer that fits into the construct of our culture and societal norms. Something like, “I’m good thanks.” But your question will also trigger a more meaningful response. That response will be my mind imagining a sweet little bird looking over me while chirping: “attention,” “attention,” “attention.”