‘How are you?’ and answering honestly at work

No, we are not all fine. And that’s OK

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

These are the words of Eleanor Oliphant, the title character in the 2017 bestselling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The book tells Eleanor’s story, which is anything but fine.

And yet, as the words above capture, Eleanor knows that is not the story that she’s meant to tell others when asked, “How are you?”

The story she is meant to tell is that she is “completely fine”. And you know it’s the story you are also meant to tell when asked, “How are you?”

This can be especially acute when it comes to the workplace. The story we are meant to tell our colleagues is that we have got it all together, that we’re competent and in control. That we are completely fine. We aim to “look fantastic – to ourselves, and to the rest of the world,” as Amanda Hooton wrote in an Instagram analysis.

However, the reality is that this is a mask all of us are wearing.

We’re not completely fine.

Will Storr in his book Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us laments the “perfectionist presentation” we feel obliged to put on in our current culture. Put simply, it’s ruining us, according to Storr.

“We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills,” writes Storr. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Jesus is perfect so that we don’t need to be. It’s as simple and as profound as that.

In other words, it’s exhausting trying to present all the time as completely fine when you are anything but. And it’s a miserable way to live.

We need a better way than this.

And … the Christian gospel provides one. It’s a simple message, and yet it has fresh relevance in this selfie, perfectionist age.

The message that Jesus is perfect so we don’t need to be. It’s as simple and as profound as that.

The perfection of Jesus is a repeated theme in Scripture, as is the theme of our imperfections. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22) “In him there is no sin.” (1 John 3:5). “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

The good news  is Jesus is perfect so that we don’t need to be. More than that, not only is Jesus perfect, but those in him are also made perfect.

“[God] made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Our perfection is found not in the perfect selfie, or any other way that we fall into the “perfectionist presentation” trap. Rather, true perfection, righteousness, is ours in Christ.

How does this personally help me in a world where everyone presents as fine, but the reality is that none of us are?

In my daily work, I use as many means as possible to remind myself of these truths, especially in contexts where I’m tempted to shape who I am and what I say in order to impress others and present as perfect. For example, I do a lot of teaching and preaching in my work. Perhaps here more than anywhere else, I worry about how people might think of me based on what I say and how I present. What if I don’t present perfectly? What if I stumble? What if they discover how nervous and anxious I really am standing in front of them?

It is in these moments where I feel the pressure to “perform”, to win the approval of others through my work, that I take a moment to remind myself of these truths about my identity. I pray that God might impress them upon my heart afresh. I seek then to live in the freedom of not needing to present as perfect to others, because in Christ I already am.

Second, I admit I don’t have it all together and I ask for help. Because I know that before the one that truly matters I am perfect in Christ, I don’t need the approval of my colleagues. So I can be honest when I’m asked, “How are you?” I can admit “I’m not doing so great today”, or “I need help.”

Colleagues might mock my imperfections, yet in the light of eternity that can’t ultimately harm me.

It’s hard to ask for help, so this is something I’m trying to practise being comfortable with. Right near where I live I’ve found a perfect place to practise – a school pedestrian crossing. Before and after school, a “crossing supervisor” helps children cross the road. Sometimes I’m crossing when he is on duty, and, as he does with the children, he walks out into the middle of the road with me to help me cross. The first few times he did it I found it incredibly humiliating; “I’m a grown man – I don’t need help crossing the road!” However, I’ve come to see this as a perfect opportunity to practise humbling myself, admitting that I don’t have it all together, and accepting the help of others.

It has been good for my soul to gladly accept the help of the crossing supervisor!

Others might mock our imperfections, yet in the light of eternity it can’t ultimately harm us.

To live in the light of this truth is wonderfully liberating and freeing. Also, it can be powerfully attractive to our colleagues who are trapped in a world which tells them they must say that they are “completely fine”. Because they’re not. And without Jesus, we’re not either. But in him we are. And that’s good news.

* Amanda Hooton, “Meet Instagram’s new ‘reality’ superstars”, The Good Weekend, May 5, 2018.

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