“Listen to yourself.” I’m trying to do just that: listen to the words I say, and especially to my tone of voice. These give broad hints about a person’s attitude and mood and in a broad sense, health.
Most human encounters include a mutual enquiry about health and happiness and life in general. The exchange may be rapid and automatic and formulaic, but at the same time it’s usually sincere. We do care! And as we get older, the enquiries take on a certain intensity. Our contemporaries are ailing and failing and dying.
- “How are you?”
- “How’s life?”
- “How’s your day?”
- “How are you doing?”
- “Is everything OK?”
How do you reply to a routine howdy?
Do you deliver an organ recital, as many older people do? More important, how does your voice sound when you reply—half full of strawberries or half full of wet concrete?
I bumped into a friend in his eighties (call him Luke) and asked the usual question and he said, “I’ve just had a triple bypass and a hip replacement!”
What tone of voice did you imagine—depressed, tragic, piteous, whiny, fearful or worried? Wrong wrong wrong. His voice was joyful and triumphant and he went on to say, “I’m feeling better than I have for years.” Then he rushed away to a meeting about his latest venture.
Voices tell their own stories
Yesterday at the pool I was reminded of Luke’s exuberant voice when I encountered another friend (call her Matilda) from decades past.
“How are you?”
“Good. I’m fine.” (Tentatively, as if to say, being well is a bad sign, it must stop soon.) “But you know, I’m in my eighties.” (Gloomily, as if to say, “Therefore by definition my life is completely hopeless and pointless and I’m sure life is horrible for you too, and if not, you mark my words, it will be soon.”)
“Well, you’ve still got that beautiful smile.”
“Huh. A smile with the back teeth missing.” (Bitchily, as if to say, “I’m ugly and you know it. How dare you say something nice about me? I have lost teeth. I have suffered.”)
In three sentences she made me feel sad for her, although she does indeed have a beautiful smile.
Statistically, everyone over 80 is likely to have at least one ominous health condition, so I do not underestimate the troubles of Matilda’s life. Her health problems have left visible scars. But this attitude, voiced over and over again in words and tone, surely cramps and squeezes and poisons the spirit leaving no space for hope, no space to appreciate a good swim.
Matilda did me a good turn
I decided to listen to my own answers to these daily howdys—both the words I say and the voice I use. I don’t want to be dishonest, but what’s appropriate? How much detail is appropriate? If you keep saying the same things, you get boring. If you keep using a gloomy voice, it doesn’t just reflect gloom—it spreads gloom.
Minutes later I met yet another friend in the changing room.
“How’s your day going, Rachel?”
“Brilliant. I woke up.”
“You mean the swim woke you up?”
“No. Every day I wake up, it’s a brilliant day.” And that is well worth celebrating.
This post was transferred from a non-Wordpress blog, and was originally published in July 2015. Photo: “Bessie” 1914. Alexander Allison. Commons, Wikimedia.org