I do not think it means what you think it means

I was walking past the shops the other day and a woman approaching looked past me and said cheerily, “Hello. How are you, Peter?” The man behind me stopped and said, “Not too good, actually.” The woman smiled awkwardly and hurried into the shop. Peter stood for a moment and then slowly continued on his way.

One of my favourite films is The Princess Bride. One favourite scene (oh, there are so many) is when Inigo has had enough of Vizzini’s use of the word “Inconceivable!” whenever things don’t go quite the way he was expecting. “You keep using that word,” Inigo tells him. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

We use words all the time that don’t necessarily hold to their true meaning. When something is ‘cool’ it often doesn’t mean that it’s at a lower temperature.

“How are you?” has now become synonymous with “Hello.” We often say it without even realising it’s a question. We certainly don’t expect an answer. Or if we do, we expect a stock standard response. “Good, thanks.” (I had a friend when I was a child whose father would pick on me if I said that. “Are you good? Should I check with your parents?” I soon learned to say, “I’m quite well, thank you.”)

We’ve become so automatic with this phrase that I’ve had people respond when I haven’t even said it. “Hello.” “I’m well, thank you.” Right.

I’m a terrible liar and I would make a hopeless poker player. If my life is not going well, I’m not much good at hiding it. But I’ve learnt to answer most “How are you?” greetings with a pre-prepared response of “I’m okay, thanks. How are you?” because I know most people don’t actually want to know how my day is going.

How are you

Of course, many of our interactions are necessarily kept on a casual level. I’m pretty sure the bank teller doesn’t really want to know that my father is very ill or that I’m worried about my kids.

But maybe it’s time to reclaim the phrase “How are you?” and to use it in the way it was intended. Maybe we should start answering the question honestly when we’re asked. If someone doesn’t really want to know, they’ll soon learn to say something else. “Hello. Nice to see you.” We should ask the question as if we mean it and be prepared for an answer.

I wanted to turn around to that man called Peter and ask him why things weren’t good and if he was okay but I didn’t. I wish I had. Who knows, I may have been the first person to really ask him “How are you?”



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The Meaning of Work and the Work of Meaning

It is generally agreed that long term, chronic and generational unemployment (where children grow up never seeing an adult get up and go to work) plays a large part in societal disadvantage and dysfunction. It is often trumpeted that if we could only get these people into some sort of work, all those problems would disappear. But does putting someone to work sweeping footpaths or stacking boxes really improve their sense of self? Perhaps for someone who has never held a job, the experience of earning a pay packet would indeed lift their self-esteem. But for those who have in the past experienced challenging and fulfilling work and now find themselves jobless, would any sort of work make them feel the same? I think the employment rate hides another societal issue – that of those employed but for whom work does not hold meaning.

Steve Jobs

Until very recently I was unemployed and had been for eight months. I voluntarily left a job that was family-friendly, reasonably flexible and, though low-paid, secure. It would seem an odd job to leave but it had little to challenge me and it was difficult to identify what difference I was making to the world.

I have a teaching qualification, long ago gained but never used. Having a background in mathematics and science I was assured by Those In The Know that these were highly sought-after subjects in the local high schools. So I took the gamble, left my job and launched myself into the world of Casual Relief Teaching.

Those In The Know were sadly misinformed. Thus the eight months  of unemployment.

What changed? I took another gamble. Friends working in the disability sector had for some time suggested I put my name down at the local school for children with intellectual disabilities, citing a desperate need for relief teachers. I had batted each suggestion away with the sense of dismissive ridiculousness it deserved. If I couldn’t gain employment in my area of expertise, what hope did I have in a sector for which I was woefully unqualified? However, unemployment (and its accompanying feelings of rejection) can give one an incentive to try even the most outrageous career choice.

Fortunately I had the opportunity to enter as a volunteer. It gave me the chance to experience the environment and what would be required with a ‘no harm, no foul’ get out clause.

I loved it.

Yeah, it surprised me too.


I’d made no secret as to my purpose for volunteering and once my stint was over, they were keen to move me into relief teaching. I was to undergo a number of days of induction, getting to know some of the classes. Halfway through my first induction day, I was asked if I was available to work the next day. And they’ve kept asking, so I must be doing something right.

Each day I go in, I feel like I’ve jumped out of an aeroplane without a parachute. I am on a steep learning curve (practically vertical) but I am thriving on the challenge. I feel once again the work I am doing is meaningful, not only because it is challenging and stretching me to my utmost ability limits but mostly because of the children themselves. They inspire me every single day and I highly value the opportunity to offer them the experiences and learning they deserve.

Any job can give you at least some sense of doing something productive with your time. It also conveniently puts food on the table. But a job that makes you feel like you are making a difference in the world is what turns working for a living into working for meaning.

It doesn’t mean you have to be vaccinating orphans in Africa or building shelters for the homeless or even working in special education. Whatever your work is, if it feels like more than just a job, if it gives you pleasure in the knowledge that you are having a positive influence on somebody’s life, it is a work of meaning. Perhaps you are the welcoming, smiling face at your local café, the only one a lonely old lady may see all day. Perhaps you take pride in keeping a school clean and tidy, knowing that you are contributing to a positive learning environment. Perhaps you bring the joy of music to people.

It doesn’t have to be ‘worthy’, it just has to matter.




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