Often my editorials have moved into the interior. I’ve noted how our lives on this planet are interrelated and entangled. This has been a preoccupation with me for some time. It has led me into areas I never imagined. I recall how twenty years ago on the evening of 9/11, I stopped quite late for gas and found the Middle Eastern man behind the plexiglass wary and anxious. After I paid for the gas, I simply asked him, “How is it with you?” With that he placed a “Closed” sign in the window and motioned me to the side door. He came out and said that he was quite worried about his children in Lebanon and he was terrified that his dream of being an American had toppled down with the twin towers. We stood there on that dread night, two fathers staring into an unknown future.
Another time on a drizzly afternoon in Albany, I noticed the fumbling gestures of an older man, whom passersby regarded as some down-and-out alcoholic. But he seemed to be trying to reach something in his coat with no luck. I went over and asked how he was. He pointed to a pocket on his chest. Inside was medication. I took it out and twisted the cap. He took two pills and looked relieved. I asked if he wanted to get out of the rain and he mutely led me to a step-down basement apartment only a few blocks away. When I knocked, the door opened to what was his entire family who had been out of their minds wondering where their father had gone. I was invited in to their family dinner and found out that he had suffered a stroke two years before and still had trouble uttering a sound. He often took off unexpectedly as he had that day.
It strikes me that I have been asking a rather simple question all these years, yet it runs deeper than the usual theological inquiries. Perhaps “How is it with you?” is not as dramatic as the tapping out of poetry in code by prisoners in Vietnam to one another. But it is certainly more than the usual “How are you?” that demands only a standard reply.
It is a prêt-à-porter, “ready to wear” question. You can take this question anywhere, or rather, it will probably take you anywhere.
This question is what I would call the foundation of a real spiritual life. For it underpins the reality that all life is relational and entangled.
When you ask anyone who is on the margin, who is not noticed, who is unwelcome, you connect and sense that reality wells up in you as you open yourself to the uncertain response of the other.
You can only ask this question if you care, if you bend over to the other and listen. How is it with you? It is open-ended and can only be answered by the other.
This question is the beginning of any great novel where the author dares to open up, asking his imagined characters how is it with them and then allowing an answer.
This is a question of resistance, of denying the right of the powerful to speak for those who have no voice, or worse, are not permitted to have a voice.
One can also question the powerful with this question: How is it with you? And one can hear the powerful confess more than they would ever imagine saying.
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This question, in fact, unmasks the power of questioning. It reveals that care is the life-blood of the discussion. It cannot allow a simple obfuscation, a deflection, a denial. Why? Because it cares to hear from the other about the other.
It allows the other to describe, to give a hint or a glimpse of what the other’s life, condition, is all about. It allows the other not only to speak but to breathe alongside you.
It demonstrates that the air we breathe in together is a sign of our relational being. It conveys the mutuality in asking questions.
This is what happened when I asked the gas station attendant on 9/11, when I asked the man in Albany who seemed to be wandering. It is not the automatic “Howyadoin?” expecting the usual prefabricated refrain. It entails finding yourself in a situation much deeper than you anticipated. It is a question the rich, the elite, the powerful would seldom bother to ask, would seldom even imagine the need to ask. It assumes the I-Thou reality of life. It overcomes the I-it instrumentality of the powerful, of control.
Indeed, this question impinges on how we investigate our usual theological wonderings. Could this be what the God of Israel surprised the crucified one with? Did Paul discover that God was foolish enough to care for the nobody? Is this question how we actually exercise being in the image of God? For we discover ourselves only when we are surprised by the depths of another.
Indeed, this question can also be turned around, on you, the questioner. For there comes a time when the one answering realizes that the questioner also needs to answer that same question, and in ways also unpredictable and ever surprising. Indeed, the questioner so questioned is startled that the respondent is interested and wants to know. Here the questioner now confesses, at a level even surprising to oneself, “I never dreamed I’d be getting into this!”
Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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