Asking how and why, not what

Each day, before our classes, in the hallways, in our dorm rooms, we have countless small conversations with friends, classmates, and acquaintances. In each, we so frequently ask each other the basic question: “What are you doing today?”

Whether we are asking about someone’s evening, day, or week, we practically know what they will say, give or take a few activities, before we even ask the question. We expect each other to rattle off a list of clubs, readings, and homework assignments. Around midterms or finals, the list will undoubtedly include writing papers and studying for major exams. During football weekends, it will usually include the football game, likely preceded by tailgating, homework, or helping with Knights of Columbus steak sales. Depending on whom we ask, it may include a party, a religious event such as EXALT, or both. Perhaps, our friend will readily reply, “I’m finally going to get some sleep.”

Just as often as we ask the question, we are asked the question in return. And, for the most part, we answer much the same way. For both ourselves and our colleagues, busyness appears to be a permanent state, with variation confined to its degree rather than its presence.

In some ways, inquiring about what work others are doing can be beneficial. Work is an important part of our lives. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens, “mankind is called to work” as “work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures.”  Thus, the question could be insightful if it reveals something more about one another. Additionally, discussing our work can help us find periods of free time to spend with one another or ways to coordinate schedules so work is done in community, not in isolation.

However, if we are not careful, the question can also further perpetuate our culture’s laser focus on work and accomplishments, rather than each other’s humanity. We are surrounded by an environment where others are continually judging our work and our accomplishments. Each of us, simply to be at this university, had our academic work, our extracurricular activities, even our service and religious involvement, scrutinized by an admissions committee and dubbed sufficiently worthy. This process is unavoidable. The danger arises when we allow this evaluation of accomplishments and past experiences to become an evaluation of our worth and our well-being.

Too often, this busyness becomes a social status symbol. If someone is busy, we think, then they must be working on all kinds of important activities and achieving impressive results. We start measuring ourselves and one another by how much time we spend doing something, doing anything. If we are not working or volunteering or going to an activity, we fear we are falling behind. We have even coined an acronym for this feeling: FoMO, or Fear of Missing Out.

Despite this, how busy a person is, how many classes, jobs, or activities he has, does not determine his identity or value. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that “God has imprinted his own image and likeness on man, conferring upon him an incomparable dignity.” This dignity is not contingent upon what we do, but rather is a free gift from our Creator.  God already knows the truth: we are invaluable.  He already loves us more than we can ever appreciate in this life, even sending His only Son to save us. To claim that an extra club or activity will make us worth more is preposterous. What has more worth than God’s love?

As then Cardinal Ratzinger said in a homily and my Foundations of Theology professor drove into me and my classmates, to be human is to be related in love with all those around us. Ratzinger said “human beings are relational, and they possess their —only by way of relationship … to be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for.” Thus, our focus should be on connecting with each other, learning more about and seeking to understand the depths of each other’s being.  Discussing one another’s work can help us begin, but we must move beyond such superficial inquiries in our quest for mutual understanding.

Instead of focusing on what each of us is doing, let us shift our focus to how each of us is doing and why we choose work so diligently. Keep asking how your friend’s classes and activities are going, but don’t settle for a cookie-cutter response. Let us share with one another our emotions, our sorrows, and our joys. Let our conversation be about the struggle of writing a lab report while being worried about home, or about the tremendous debate that erupted over a finer philosophical point in class. Share the silly joke you made to your neighbor or the crazy story your professor told. Ask your friends why they are devoting their time to their activities.  Listen and hear about the joy experienced, the friendships deepened, the knowledge learned, and the impacts made.

Yes, these questions are harder and longer to answer. Yes, they require more openness.  Perhaps this is why we avoid them, but they are worth the extra effort.  They reveal greater insights about who we are as individuals. The extra details allow us to better connect with one another, relating to each other more deeply. It shifts the focus away from an individual’s actions and towards the individual himself.

So, in your next conversation, pause before you ask, “What are you doing?” Instead, ask “How are you doing?” or “Why are you doing [insert activity]?” Then, pause and wait for an honest answer. You may not receive a genuine answer the first time you ask; it may take many attempts to receive one. But, when you do receive an answer, it will be far more meaningful than the list of activities and homework that you would have received otherwise, and far more valuable in helping us relate to one another in love.