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As people begin to gather this time of year, you might be confronted with the well-meaning "How are you?" This can seem as hollow as the "I hope this email finds you well" (a phrase of which I am often guilty). It's a lobbed greeting in which we all know there is truly one appropriate response—"fine." We all have baggage, and sometimes that inane phrase can make you feel like a suitcase being shoved into an overhead compartment (you start to sweat, you apologize to the people waiting behind you, and then you take your seat without too much eye contact). Sure, you could have checked your baggage at the gate. But it would be waiting for you on the other side.
This assumption that being "fine" or being happy should be the baseline of human experience, is not only constricting, it is diminishing what it means to be human. There isn't a whole lot of room in public to sit with or respond to unhappiness. There isn't a whole lot of room to respond to the grief—especially the grief of this past year. We have no great advice on how to navigate family responses to a divorce or a layoff or a bad haircut. We have no great advice on how to be sad or how to be happy. But we do know, from years of experience and cross-cultural human interaction, that sometimes sadness needs a friend.
Difna and Regina, our two colleagues and Ajiri social workers, visit each of our 30 scholars at their rural homes once every semester. They always ask, "How are you?" Sometimes a student will say "fine" and wear this false happiness like a protective cloak. Some students want to will banality into existence—they want to will normalcy and "fineness" into their lives. Regina and Difna do nothing to dissuade this emotional armor, but they will still sit with them for hours over tea. And by the end of these visits the student might just be a bit more fine than before.
Sometimes you need to sit with sadness, it is almost always better when someone sits beside you. Like Regina and Difna sitting with a student in their rural home in Kisii, Kenya, we hope that a strong cup of tea can be a familiar and predictable friend when the days lose light. Whether you are sitting with sadness or with joy, we promise to pick up the phone, respond to your emails, and fill your orders with care.
We also would never judge you for cramming a suitcase into an overhead compartment. And if it didn't fit, we'd be stuffing your dirty socks into our purse.
Kate, Sara, and Ann
P.S. Order soon to ensure that tea is under the tree We are expecting postal delays again this year.
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