Are you okay?

I didn’t think much about the interaction after it took place, but I’ve never forgotten the email I received years later. It’s an important reminder of what it means to be part of social groups and what it means to look out for one another. I believe in the possibility for a peaceful world through the purposeful, intentional building of peaceful societies and communities. And I believe this requires us to step outside of ourselves and care for those who share our communities with us.

After reading and rereading an email that I was surprised to receive, I thought back to the interaction that had taken place one afternoon. I saw a student sitting in the hall in front of the lockers, a completely normal thing for a student to do, and something about facial expression or body language prompted me to follow up my greeting with, “Are you okay?” The student reassured me that all was fine, and we went our separate ways.

But, the student wrote in an email years later, all wasn’t fine and I had noticed. This student was now older, wiser, happier, and more confident in themselves and was writing to thank me for noticing them. I appreciated the email not just because of its contents, but because it indicated that the student remembered something I had forgotten, something that was more significant than I had recognized.

And this led me to think about other interactions, other moments in which we catch something in others that is, perhaps, not quite right. And then we make a choice. We can make the choice to dismiss what we see, to assume that people will come to us if they need to. Or, we make the choice to engage. This can be as simple as asking that question, “Are you okay?” or opening a conversation that we find challenging. It can be hard to share our impressions of others with them, to ask people really big questions about their lives or their choices. Sometimes we don’t realize (or won’t admit) something is wrong until somebody stops us to ask.

Even if we don’t want to have the conversation, or if the automatic, “Yes, why?” remains the response, I think there’s something really important in having been asked how you are. Like my student, I’ve never forgotten the Italian night class professor who took one look at me and asked if I was okay. I remember blaming whatever “it” was on having had a long day at work, and I don’t remember what was actually wrong. I just remember that she noticed something and she asked. On another occasion, I remember the relief I felt at someone else noticing a situation that I had tried to brush aside. “Are you okay?” meant that I didn’t have to be, meant that someone else saw what I saw.

One might argue that a simple “Are you okay?” is only good enough if the response is then acknowledged. What do we do, for example, when we were secretly hoping the person would simply reply, “Yes, why?” or when we realize that the ten minutes we’re available to talk might not be enough? I don’t want to say that there’s an art to asking this question because I don’t think there is. I think people understand when a question is genuinely meant. There is then a respect in interaction that opens an invitation when an immediate response is not possible. “Are you okay?” could indeed arrest a moment of crisis, but I don’t know how commonly that is the case.

I don’t think it has to be complicated to be a good person or to live as part of a social society. Rather, I think it is the aspect of acknowledging one another’s humanity in a natural, real way that creates such societies. There’s no harm in pausing for the moment it takes to ask someone how they are, and the ask itself might make all the difference.

Bikovo Nature Park, Croatia – October 2022

2 thoughts on “Are you okay?”

  1. Well said Rebecca! I have used this simple question with my students and colleagues for so many years now, and it truly makes a difference to my students and colleagues as well


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