How are you? (That’s the question.)
I like to wake up early. Before 5 is best, when the air is a smudge away from nighttime darkness.
It feels sacred.
The world is undiscovered. I go outside, yawning, stumbling on leftover dreams. The dog glows with happiness at being alive and moving. All the edges are soft.
I walk down the road into the darkness of the trees. The shadows deepen here and my breath always catches, an instant of halting panic.
What is it about darkness that makes us afraid?
It’s only the first few steps that scare me. Once I’m under the trees, their shadows feel kind rather than threatening. The branches arc over the road and create space within space. I breathe deep. I start moving faster.
As I move down the road, the light begins to grow.
The small hum in my chest gathers itself into a force and begins to be beautiful, exhilarating. If I do this first, before the buzz and roar of the world begins, I can feel that force fully, can breathe it in and out, can meet the day led by my own authority rather than by expectations and reactions.
(I may not last long in the self-governed state of awareness, but it’s good to start there, at least.)
The day erupts into itself.
What a rush to see the thousand streams of our separate daily lives intersecting: in street corners and doorways, spoken and unspoken greetings, pounding bass lines from car windows, over cups of coffee, eyes meeting, energy drawn up and out, passed from one to another to another to another to another.
We do this day after day, all of us together, in a shared dance of self-created reality. It can be joyful. It can be fulfilling.
It can make us feel utterly alone.
We look at each other but don’t see. We smile but don’t mean it.
We say, “I’m fine, how are you?” and don’t talk about the real things, whatever they are: financial strain or devastation, unsatisfying relationships, continual worry over our kids or our parents or the planet, the heavy decisions we have to make, the lack of options, the job that isn’t there, the salary that holds us prisoner, the fact that we’re barely holding our shit together, once again.
If we can’t name those things, those material-temporal things, of course we won’t name the even bigger, deeper, scarier things.
Well, you won’t. But I will.
Here’s a short list of honest ways I could have answered your “How are you?” question on any given day in the last few years:
Hey Annie, how are you?
Oh, you know, okay but really, I’m struggling to express my emotions because I’ve been repressing them for so long that I no longer have any idea how I really feel about the things that matter most to me, and I don’t know what’s more terrifying: not knowing what I feel, or finding out that what I feel is somehow going to destroy the life I’ve built.
Annie! How are you today?
Well, to be honest, I feel a deep sense of shame and unworthiness and it washes over me at seemingly random times and I don’t know why and I don’t know how to deal with it but I think it’s because there’s something deeply wrong with me, and this feeling of disgust and horror at myself is growing and I don’t know how much longer I can deal with it.
Good morning Annie. How’s it going?
Not good, really, as all the belief systems I built my life on are crumbling and I wish I could unlearn things I’ve learned, but I can’t now and I can’t go back to that sense of certainty I had and I have no idea how to assess life moving forward, or how to make decisions, or know what matters, and I certainly don’t trust myself to make good decisions so I feel stuck, frozen, and terrified while life continues to move on at an insane speed all around me and I’m afraid I’ll never catch up.
What’s up Annie! You doing okay?
You know, as it turns out, I’m pretty sure I’m broken in some significant ways and I feel as if I have probably fucked my life up completely and, in so doing, deeply hurt the people I care most about in this world and that thought is so devastating to me that I almost can’t bear it but I have no idea how to fix my mistakes so I keep making the same ones over and over but the hopelessness of it all is wearing me down.
Buenos días, Annie, cómo estás?
Quieres la verdad? I feel disconnected and isolated and alone, and I haven’t let myself feel how lonely I am because doing so means admitting that I don’t know how to connect and that I’m scared to be real because I’m scared of who I really am and I’m sure that if people knew who I really am, if I were truly honest, then they would reject me and rightfully so, so I keep pretending that these shallow, halfway connections are okay for me but I don’t know how long I can keep that up.
Hey girl, it’s been a long time. How are you?
Well, lately I’ve been looking at my life and evaluating what things mean and realizing that I’ve wasted so much time on things I don’t care about, and I’m filled with a deep sense of regret because I long to be significant, I long for my life to have purpose, I long to contribute but I feel completely inadequate, like I have nothing of value to offer, and I’m pretty certain that there is nothing good in me so that even if I came up with some Great Idea I would probably screw it up, so I’ve retreated into not really trying but it’s killing my soul and I can feel that poisonous energy building up into a rage, and the numbness is barely covering a desperation that makes me want to do awful, insane, destructive things just to remind myself that I’m alive.
How are you, Annie?
I’ll give it to you straight: I feel trapped in a life of obligation and routine, of responsibilities and commitments, and I know I have to take care of things, I have to do what I’ve said I’ll do, and I don’t want to hurt anybody but when I lay in bed at night I keep thinking is this all there is? and I wish I could figure out how to feel alive, how to explore and have adventures and do what I love and really live without messing everything up, but I don’t see how it can work out and so I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing but it feels like I’m dying by millimeters every day and soon I won’t remember who I am at all.
… And how are you today?
Those have all been accurate descriptions of my internal, real, true state.
They are shadows.
The further I go inside, the deeper they become. They gather to a darkness deep and final, a darkness I have been avoiding for most of my life.
What is it about darkness that makes me afraid?
Darkness represents my deepest fear: the unknown. I fear what is unknown more than I fear anything else. That’s why I spend so much energy making plans. I’m trying to prepare for the future, the best I can, but here’s the thing about the future: it’s always unknown, and it always will be, because it doesn’t exist.
But the unknown future isn’t what I fear the most.
I’m okay with talking about it, planning for it, scheming and dreaming and discussing it. It’s a great distraction from my bigger, deeper, much more terrifying fear:
The unknown of who I am. The unknown of the self.
Compared to the terror of my unknown self, the fear of an unknown future is almost pleasant.
Why am I so afraid to look at myself? What awful thing do I expect to find? I don’t know (not until I look) but I’m terrified to dive in, to find out, to face it.
I’m like a kid shivering under the covers, sure there’s a monster under the bed. Too frightened to move, too frightened to call for help, too frightened to peek under there and confirm the worst: it’s real, it’s there, it’s more horrifying than I could have imagined, and it’s going to kill me.
The idea of the monster is so terrifying that I’d rather not look. I’d rather not know for sure. There’s a sense of safety in not knowing, in the uncertainty. It’s a pitiful scrap of safety.
I guess I expect to find proof that my worst feelings are justified: that I am alone, and I deserve to be alone. That I’m not what I should be. That those feelings I have of being not good, not enough, somehow wrong, somehow inadequate, that those feelings are justified by something unnamed and sinister, something so awful I can’t describe it, something that can never be forgiven or accepted.
Something that is the truest, deepest part of who I am.
If I don’t look under the bed, I can cling to that idea: maybe it’s not true. I can hide in the uncertainty of not knowing for sure.
What a thin scrap of safety to build a life on.
As long as there’s uncertainty, there’s some chance I might be wrong. Maybe there isn’t a monster after all. Maybe all the shame and self-condemnation isn’t justified. That’s the thin line of hope I cling to. If it’s not true, I don’t want to know.
But I’m not good at living in uncertainty. None of us are.
All tension comes from uncertainty, and tension that stays too long becomes chronic anxiety, in a variety of forms: nervousness, numbness, apathy, need to control, worrying, supressed emotions, panic, paranoia.
The alternative seems impossible: look under the bed? Face the monster? Have my worst fears confirmed? Get eaten alive?
Why the hell would I do that?
Going inside, to see who I am truly, to be quiet and still and undistracted, to see and know the self, that’s facing the fear head on.
I’m not sure I can do it.
You know what I mean? I can handle the fear if I look at it sideways. If I mostly ignore it. I handle it by not acknowledging it’s there, and definitely not acknowledging how much it matters.
But it does matter. It matters more than anything.
This fear–fear of who I am–was kicked off at some point long ago by the experience and pain of separation. The separation creates the fear. The fear creates more separation. The continued separation validates the fear. The growing fear increases the separation. On and on and on and on and on.
What a silly little overwhelming viciously cruel cycle. I can spin out for years, decades, lifetimes.
Or I can deal with it. Face the monster.
It feels like death to face the fear.
I don’t know what I’m up against. The stakes are so high. As soon as I decide to go for it
finally I can’t stand it anymore I have to do something I can’t take this pain
the uncertainty shifts.
Now it’s no longer a question of if there’s a monster under the bed. It’s a question of how big and awful the monster is, and exactly how painful it will be when it kills me.
But there’s relief in it. There’s certainty. At least I will know. At least I will know who I am. Maybe I’ll die. Maybe I’ll want to die. But I’ll know my self, for an instant, first.
I hope it will be worth it.
I’m happy to report that none of those descriptions, above, none of those how are you answers are the internal, real, true state I currently inhabit.
I moved from those dark places to the place I am now. I’m out of the shadows and into the glorious light.
I didn’t get here by ignoring the shadows.
I got here by looking at them, finally, honestly. I did it by taking those first few steps, further in, chest pounding, panic building, everything in me screaming to get away run away hide hide hide don’t go in there.
I did it by by walking into the darkness.
I gained the courage to walk into the darkness of my self because I could no longer live with the pain of separation and shame. My distractions were taken away. My neat little world crumbled. My identity unraveled. Suddenly there was no way to stay numb. Suddenly there was nothing left to lose.
Suddenly the darkness became the only thing I could see, and all the noise and roar, the push and pull, the striving and hiding faded into the meaninglessness that it is, and there was me and there was the darkness, and it was time.
All our stories are true, you know.
The hero’s quest. The journey into the unknown. The myths and legends, the fairy tales, the narratives. They tell us what we are here to do, what we must do if we want to live, truly: leave everything behind and seek the treasure. Face the tragedy of life and venture into the unknown to find the real meaning of it all. To choose our meaning.
The best gift you can receive is the gift of pain, however it comes. It wakes you up out of your numbing sleep and forces you to feel all the pain, all the fury of it, all the force of it.
Of course you feel like you will die, or should die. Of course you don’t want this experience. Of course it doesn’t seem like a gift, but it is.
Blessed are those who suffer, for they will come undone.
Blessed are those whose lives have fallen apart, for they have nothing left to lose.
Blessed are those who are shattered, for they can no longer pretend.
Blessed are those whose pain has become unbearable, for they can no longer ignore it.
Blessed are those who know themselves wounded, for they will find healing.
Blessed are those who walk into the darkness, for they shall emerge into the glorious light.
How are you? (That’s the question.)
Are you stubbornly asleep? It’s time to wake up.
Are you numbing yourself with distractions? You don’t have to do that anymore.
Are you waking up to such great pain you can barely breathe? You will live through this because you are stronger than you realize. This pain is a doorway to something more beautiful than you can imagine.
Are you questioning all your choices? Good; that’s a healthy exercise.
Is your life falling apart? Excellent. Let it fall apart. You don’t need “a life.” You need to live.
Has everything you trust shattered into a million pieces? Better and better. Less to worry about. Less to carry. Let it go, baby, let it go. You will learn to trust yourself.
Are you spinning out in cycles of pain? Take a deep breath and sit still. You control your movement. Stop moving until you know which way you really want to go.
Are you afraid of being alone? We all are. We aren’t meant to be alone. This fear is your doorway to connection.
Are you afraid of wasting your life? Maybe you are. Maybe it’s time you stopped. Maybe it’s time to figure out what your life would look like if you weren’t wasting it.
Do you feel unworthy? Good. Now that you’ve acknowledged the feeling, you can start figuring out where it comes from. You have this power. Use it.
Do you wonder how anyone can love you? I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Are you suffering? Blessed are you, for you will come undone. Then you will learn how to put yourself back together the way you want to be.
Are you so lonely you don’t even recognize it as loneliness anymore—you just accept it as your baseline, your normal emotional state? You don’t have to feel this way. You aren’t meant to feel this way. You don’t deserve to be alone and you don’t have to be alone… but if you don’t want to be alone anymore, you have to take the next step.
Are you terrified? It’s okay. We all are. Let’s figure this out together.
Are you wounded? Blessed are you, for you will find the courage to heal yourself.
Do you feel like you’re losing your shit? Go ahead and lose it. Lose the shit. Find yourself instead.
Are you tired of care taking for everyone else and desperate for someone to take care of you? Guess what? That someone is you. It’s time. Yes, I know it’s scary. No, it’s not selfish. Yes, I know you’re afraid. Yes, I know you don’t know how. Yes, I know you don’t trust yourself. You’re going to learn how. You don’t have to know all the steps. You don’t need a plan. All you ever get to know is your next step.
What is it about darkness that makes you afraid?
Find the shadows. Look into the darkness. Walk toward it.
As you move into the shadows, the darkness will deepen. It will threaten to overwhelm you. Don’t believe it. Take deep breaths. Take small steps. Another. Now another. Take all the time you need. There’s no rush. There’s no hurry. One foot in front of the other. Go ahead. Into the shadows. Into the darkness. Into your fear. Into your self.
As you move down the road, the light begins to grow.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of şengül.