“I’m fine.” What does that mean, really? I mean, at least for me, when I’m actually doing alright, I’ll say so. Or, maybe I’ll even say I’m OK, or I’m good. What does “fine” even mean?
There are memes galore on the internet of what “fine” means. Sometimes, they take a jab at how “fine” from a woman is usually a bad thing, because it really means she’s upset, and is saying it in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Many of the memes, though, show some sort of horrible thing happening, a room on fire, or a pained face, with a caption along the lines of: “I’m fine” or “This is fine.” Of course, it’s obvious that things are not, in fact, fine.
I think, most of the time, a person says fine when they really aren’t, but out of politeness, or in an attempt to abide by social norms, they don’t want to bring up anything negative. Especially in this world of social media, when most people only publish the good of their lives (often with added filters and good camera angles to make it look even better), when we communicate via text and snapchat, when it seems more common to see people interacting with screens than other people, the idea of “burdening” someone else by saying that things aren’t fine probably doesn’t even come to mind. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t even realize they aren’t fine. We are a social species. Even people who don’t want to follow mainstream norms usually end up in some other community, some other nonconformist group, and frequently they try to “conform” to the mores of that group.
To be fair, when someone asks how I am, it’s not always appropriate to really open up. The co-worker whose name I don’t know, who asks how my day is going in the elevator is just making small talk (besides, no matter how slow the elevator is, there isn’t a lot of time for a detailed conversation). When someone asks how you are at the start of a one-on-one meeting, it’s not necessarily the appropriate time or place to say that it feels like the world is falling down around you, and you haven’t gotten more than 5 hours of sleep a night for over 3 weeks. It’s a pre-scripted interaction, and we all know our roles, and something brief, like “I’m fine, and you?” is the appropriate and most common response.
I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t necessarily want to say something that isn’t true, though, so I don’t always feel comfortable saying “I’m fine,” especially since I’m in the middle of a process, a transition where I’m healing a lot of emotional scar tissue, and things can be rough from time to time. At the same time, I don’t want to open up to strangers. What’s a somewhat socially awkward, depressed, stressed, occasionally anxious girl to do?
Well, I’ve started answering by not really answering. “How’s it going?” “It’s going. How about you?” It’s sufficiently vague, socially acceptable, and not untrue. Time is going. My day is going. Sometimes, I’m not sure how well it’s going, but it’s going.
The more I hear people say that they’re fine, especially outside of the context of a polite exchange in passing, the less I believe it. If you’re really “fine,” you’d probably use a different word, in my opinion, and in my experience. “Fine,” to me means either: “I’m not fine, but I don’t want to let you in any further,” or “I’ve been suppressing my real feelings so long, I’m not sure if I am fine or not.” Sometimes, it means “I’m not fine, but I’m not ready to do anything about it, or even acknowledge that I’m not fine.” Being in any of these places is an OK place to be. My prayer for everyone who is using “fine” when they aren’t is that they find someone to talk things through with, so they can stop saying they’re “fine” and work towards being “OK,” or maybe even “great.” Some great places to turn are therapists, pastors/priests, or trusted friends & family. If things are really rough, though, I’d say a therapist or pastor/priest would be a great starting point.
As someone who is half a year into her therapy journey (and I feel simultaneously like I’ve just begun yet come so far and like I’ve been going for a long time but not made any progress; the reality is likely somewhere in the middle), I definitely advocate for it. Even if you have to tell yourself that the best benefit is the therapist is being paid to listen, start going. The benefits are plentiful. And they listen not just because it’s their job, but because they care (and it’s their job because they care). Add in the coping tools you can get, the personal growth, and the time to talk and know you’re being heard, and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself (in my humble opinion). Not to mention, it’s a place you can go, not be “fine” and not be judged for it.
I am not “fine.” In fact, after writing this entry, I’m pretty tired of the word. In one of my poetry classes in college, the instructor had us all add a page to the end of our writing journals, where we actively drafted things and jotted down inspiration. He told us to write “Word Graveyard” at the top, and then take any cliche words, or words we noticed we overused, and put it in the word graveyard. For me, “fine” is now in my word graveyard, at least as far as it refers to my emotional/mental state. It is another 4 letter word, another F-word that I will work on actively avoiding in my vocabulary.
What do you think when someone says they’re “fine”?