How Are You Today?

A Review of Embracing the Void: Rethinking the Origin of the Sacred by Richard Boothby

Image by Frank May, DPA, NTB

It’s the most often asked question, and the most seldom answered. It’s banal, yet profound. We engage in it without thinking. Perhaps it’s just as well. If we did think about it, it might break our brains. Let’s try it and see.

Whenever I go out to the waiting room to get a client, I ask the question while we’re still in that public space. How are you today? It crosses my lips without my thinking. I barely listen to the usual counterfeit answer, Fine, thank you, and you? before making an insipid reply that’s just as phony.

After this brief exchange, I turn and show my client the way to the office. Once we get inside, I ask a variation of the same question, How are you today? Because I’m a therapist, I often get a very different answer. I’m anxious, depressed, my wife left me, or the like. They’re rarely fine. What changed in the two minutes it took to sit down? Did something happen? Nothing happened. In the waiting room, we agreed on the terms of communication. Then, in the office, we set about communicating.

The purpose of How are you today? is not obvious from the content of the words. The intent is revealed by the use we make of it. Linguists call it a phatic expression. It offers no intrinsically valuable information, but signals a willingness to observe conventional expectations of sociability. It’s like when we mutter Testing 1,2,3 into a microphone; not to impart knowledge, but to check a connection.

If that’s the case, then why don’t I walk into my waiting room, great my client, and say Testing 1,2,3, instead of How are you today? Richard Boothby in his book, Embracing the Void: Rethinking the Origin of the Sacred, thinks he has an answer. How are you today? is like a religious ritual.

The How are you today? ritual is generally enacted when two strangers or acquaintances meet. If you think about it, it’s odd that this very intimate question is asked of people they barely know. How I am goes to the very core of my being. If I’m anything other than fine and share it, I’m sharing too much. Whatever happened to stranger danger? Stranger danger is a phrase used to warn children that, when they don’t know a person, they don’t know what the person will do. When we’re meeting a stranger, there are a lot of unknowns.

There are a lot of unknowns when we’re meeting a non-stranger, as well. It doesn’t matter if that person is your spouse, your best friend, or your mother, there will still be parts of that person’s mind you’ll never access, and vice versa. Boothby writes:

…even when I am dealing with people I know and trust, it is likely that I will at some point have to contend with something deeply strange in them, something beyond my comfort zone, even something threatening.

This is the Void that Boothby will tell us to embrace. He also calls it das ding (German for the thing). Elsewhere, I’ve called it the Abyss. I used Emptiness in another article. Wilfred Bion called it O. I like saying das ding, but you might be more comfortable calling it the unknown. Das ding is found everywhere. It’s in the Mona Lisa’s smile, an unanswered text, the boyfriend who doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking. It’s the secret of life, as well as the meaning of it and what happens when it’s done. It’s what we’re capable of and who we would be if things were different. It’s who we really are.

I see my clients grappling with das ding when I get them in my office for the first time. When I ask what prompted them to make an appointment to see me, I can practically see the gears turning. I’m a stranger. They don’t know if they can trust me, but they generally take a look at the diplomas and licenses on my wall and decide I’m certified to be the recipient of trust. I was taught in shrink school to look like I’m listening. Most of the time I am. But whether I really get it, neither the client nor I will ever know. I do a lot of things to show I comprehend. Everything from eye contact, to nodding and making encouraging sounds; from reflective paraphrasing to written summaries goes towards making the client believe there is no das ding between us. This lie is supposed to make them feel better, and it does, but it’s still a lie and kicks the real problem down the road. What’s the real problem? We live surrounded by unknowns, try to draw a veil over them, but sometimes they break through.

There are even a lot of unknowns when dealing with yourself. When I’m asked in an earnest way how I am, I find that it’s not an easy question to answer, even when I trust the other person completely. I take inventory of my health, my family, the age of my roof, the sound my car makes when running, the balance of my bank account, the state of my feelings, the quality of my thoughts, how much sleep I got, and whether my big toe is hurting today, I don’t know how to sum it up. How I am depends on what I choose to look at. Does a new car overcome a bad night’s sleep? Does indigestion ruin the taste of the meal? Does anything matter in light of climate change? Additionally, are there things about me I’m not assessing properly? Am I in denial over something? Are there unconscious forces that will eventually be my ruin? There are as many unknowns when I look within as when I look at another. Das ding is inside, as well.

I encounter das ding in its most blatant form when I meet a stranger. Why then do I ask them How are you? I can’t be expecting an answer that’ll satisfy me. That ain’t ever going to happen. The ritual seems to acknowledge there are unknowns, but we agree together that everything is fine. We pull a curtain over the scary scene and announce nothing to see here. Move along folks.

As Boothby puts it:

The real purpose of this greeting game is the precise opposite of what it appears to be. Its real purpose, far from really soliciting some information from the Other, is to excuse both parties from having to speak honestly about themselves and, on the basis of that unspoken agreement, to allow them to slip by each other without having to tolerate any more substantive interaction.”

What Boothby is describing here is a psychological symptom. Symptoms are sometimes caused by a physical injury or, as many like to say, a chemical imbalance. But us shrinks are more interested in the psychic causes of symptoms. They are, either the anxiety of a psychic conflict, or the hasty way you deal with the conflict. The conflict that arises out of the encounter with das ding is in whether to approach das ding or avoid it. We often need to meet with strangers for a reason, but we don’t know what they will do, so we get anxious. We deal with this anxiety with using certain rituals like How are you? and certain methods like a Ceded Object, which I will get to in a minute. Methods sometimes create bigger problems. When the ritual replaces a true encounter, it can be said to be symptomatic.

Which brings us to religion.

Boothby says dealing with das ding is the origin of religion. Religion helps us cope with the unknown. It starts very early, when an infant is dependent on a caretaker she knows nothing about. Yes, the caretaker may be the infant’s mother, but the infant doesn’t know what that means. All she knows is that sometimes the caretaker gratifies her desires, and other times she doesn’t. The child develops a faith that attempts to overlook those unknows and superstitions that try to control them.

Boothby says one of the first things an infant learns to use are Ceded Objects. A Ceded Object is something she gives to the Other so the Other will understand and accept her. Think of is as a sacrifice. An infant’s inarticulate cry is perhaps the first Ceded Object. It is something that comes out of the infant, is yielded to the space between her and the Other, and carries a message. Another Ceded Object is a gaze. When I look someone in the face, I’m making myself vulnerable to the unknowns of an Other. At the same time, I’m gathering up whatever you cede to me. I can see your eyes and, because human irises are so distinct from corneas, I can see what you’re looking at, even though I’ll never know what you think of it. You can do the same with me. Words are also Ceded Objects. So is poop for the toddler getting potty trained, and the sexual organs for those navigating adult relationships.

The initial phatic expression we exchange in my waiting room is also a Ceded Object, a cheap, inconsequential thing that’s exchanged between strangers. It’s an assurance that, even if you accidentally reveal your vulnerabilities, I’ll pretend I didn’t notice. It’s a test. Perhaps because I passed the test in the waiting room, the client will share more when we get to my office. There, we will share more Ceded Objects. The stories the client tells and the nods I make all mediate a negotiation of what you will reveal to me.

Sometimes the conflict is so great that all we do is cede objects. People will cry and cry, either because their cries are not understood or they’re unable to communicate effectively. Their gaze will intrude, they’ll shit in the wrong place, they’ll show their penises where it’s not welcome, or they’ll engage in repeated ritual without substance.

Which brings us to religion.

If a child’s own mother can represent the unknown, then whatever you want to call God certainly can. God is packed full of unknowns and imponderables. We have invented all kinds of Ceded Objects to manage the terror of living at the mercy of cosmic forces we don’t understand. Prayers, sacrifices, vows, and declarations of faith are all Ceded Objects dedicated to facilitating a relationship to the divine. Sometimes they replace it.

In Embracing the Void, Boothby goes on to quickly characterize all the major religions, as well as the capitalist’s worship of money, and shows how they do with generating symptoms versus real reconciliation of conflict.  If I were to try to summarize what he says about each religion here, it would just be confusing. Suffice it to say that, in every case, there are rituals and ceded objects. Over the course of human history, the newer religions more often encourage direct contact with das ding. This would be a good thing, according to Boothby, because he favors embracing the void over pretending it’s not there. However, the urge to diminish the power of das ding wins out, so we get empty ritual instead of a true encounter with the mysteries of God. We use assertion to a creed as a Ceded Object to replace a real commitment. Belief pretends we have the answer, so we don’t need to face das ding anymore.

In his view, Christianity could be the greatest method in dealing with the unknown, but it’s the greatest failure. He writes:

The Christian… must suspend all defensive barriers toward the Other, opening oneself even toward what appears to be threatening, alien, and anxiety producing. This posture of fearlessly reaching out to the strange is what grounds the Christian definition of love.

And where is the Christian supposed to find the strange to reach out to? Not only some distant God in the clouds, but in his neighbor, even his enemy. This is a call to fearlessly face das ding in everyday experience. Few Christians have ever opened themselves up to the unknowns of their neighbor, much less their enemy. Instead, they have made things worse by demonizing das ding and conducting themselves in rigid, legalistic, and judgmental ways. He concludes that all religion is a symptom that creates more problems than it solves.

To me, this is like saying that a road is bad because it takes you to where you don’t want to go, when in fact, you haven’t taken it far enough or you’ve been going the wrong way. The How are you? ritual can either prepare people to have a more meaningful conversation or it can replace one. In the same way, religious rituals and ceded objects can make us braver and more curious when faced with the unknown, or they can be the way we turn away.

In the end, Boothby addresses the question as to whether science does any better than religion with courageously engaging with the unknown. But science too, is guilty of deploying defenses that can be just as symptomatic. The scientist who employs a strict adherence to empiricism and mathematical calculation sidesteps the effect the unknown has on the observer, and the observer has on the unknown. Science that only deals with observable fact, as the behaviorists do in psychology, or that which can be measured, as classical economists do of the whims of desire, are missing das ding as much as strangers do who exclusively play the How are you? game.

Boothby winds things up by saying we need a science of not knowing, as much as a science of knowing. We need to develop a capacity to live in harmony with that which we will never know.

So, how are you, really?

If I were to embrace the void, the only true answer for me would be, I don’t know.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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