|This past Sunday I was handing out meal reservations in the front foyer of the chapel. It was the usual combination of some people being jovial and making small talk, and others looking not too well or happy. A man came in, maybe in his ’60s – or perhaps my age (it’s hard to judge age sometimes, living on the streets and/or alcohol/drug use can add lines to one’s face and gray to one’s hair far beyond one’s years).
I asked him, “How you doing?” and he paused for longer than seemed usual, shrugged and said, “Well… Do you want the truth? Or just something polite?” He was calling my bluff – even though I wasn’t really bluffing, I just don’t think he’s used to really being asked – or else he just didn’t have the energy for small talk. I didn’t think, but heard these words come out of my mouth as I too shrugged: “What do you want to tell me?”
He paused again, I think surprised that I was, in fact, inviting him to be as honest as he felt comfortable being, if at all. And he said, “Well, my wife died in the middle of August…” I said, “I’m really sorry to hear that.” He continued: “I’m sleeping outside. You know,… Homeless…” and he shrugged again. I deliberately tried to hold his look throughout this exchange with a bit more intention than I normally do. Not everyone wants to be stared at, even while they’re telling you something important. It takes some self-conscious effort to push through that discomfort for myself, especially without it showing.
At this point my attention was necessarily divided, because others had come in asking for reservations, and I had to at least briefly acknowledge them, but without disregarding this man and what he was telling me. I did so as gracefully as I could, then moved on, and I turned back to him and said, “Well, we’re really glad that you’re here today,” and maintained that very simple, unintrusive-yet-constant eye contact. Once again he seemed a bit surprised to have been still holding my attention. And I was conscious of not trying to fill the space to avoid an awkward silence, just giving him space to speak or not speak. He asked me my name, reached out his hand to shake mine, and said, “Thank you, brother.”
I spend a lot of time in rooms full of people embarking on a recovery journey that asks them to employ “rigorous honesty” – particularly in terms of cleaning their own side of the street, making amends, and trying to do “the next right thing” so as not to create new situations they may need to apologize for in the future; but also rigorous honesty about who and what they are, about how vulnerable they may feel, about needing help.
But here’s another quality of honesty – not in how you volunteer information, or answer someone’s question, but in how you ask a question: are you really asking what it sounds like you’re asking, or are you just following some kind of etiquette? Usually when someone answers “How are you?” with morose details about topics like death, it’s considered “too much information”. In this setting, it’s probably about 50/50 whether you will get a response of bland niceties, or harsh realities. And just as importantly perhaps, is not to pry or all the gory details, but simply to ask for as much as they might feel like sharing – and to be prepared to receive some very real information, if not “too much” exactly. But until now, I don’t think I’ve ever before asked another person, in quite these terms, “What do you want to tell me?”