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.