How a single word — OK — is so often used to cover the reality of our experience of life and closes us off from those who care enough to ask
Did you ever stop and think about how many times a day you use the word ‘okay’ or the even shorter version ‘OK’?
The word nerd inside me loves word history and this little word’s origin in filled with some fascinating lore. Some say the word comes from the Scottish, derived from ‘och aye’ or from the Louisiana French, derived from ‘au quai’. My favorite story is that it was used after a battle in the Civil War to indicate zero killed. The actual story behind the word is a lot less interesting than the myths surrounding it, but as this is not a discussion on linguistics, I want to focus more on how every one of us assigns a different meaning to it.
Let’s look at its usage in the everyday. You go to a movie and tell your friends the story is ‘OK’. Did you like it? Would you recommend it?
The term seems insufficient for the message that you want to send.
Or you recover from the flu and you say that you are feeling OK. Does that mean you are ready Climb Mount Kilimanjaro or tackle the grocery store? I can understand neither the intensity of your emotions nor the strength of your convictions here. In both examples, the word ‘OK’ can have multiple definitions which, if misunderstood, could lead to a very different outcome.
In a world where communication is deteriorating daily, we are putting a lot of faith in a simple word. How one word can do all that? The Greeks were much better than most with their creation of language. They have a few words for the feeling of love because they clearly saw that love for pizza and love for your spouse are not exactly the same thing. Maybe we need a plethora of words to express what these two tiny letters try to do.
I have thought about the use and overuse of this word a lot as I find myself using it as the default when someone asks how I am feeling since the onslaught of autoimmune diseases in my late thirties.
While many of the difficulties that I have faced have been those that impact my immune system, I am very cognizant of the fact that those who suffer from physical disabilities must also deal with the pity and prejudice from the abled community — and their version of OK is nothing like mine. Self-preservation. Mental health. The need for social cohesion. The desire to be viewed as strong and stable. These are some of my reasons for defaulting to OK.
I am reminded of a recent conversation with a coworker. I must have been having a really bad day because she asked if I felt alright. I said I was OK. But what I really wanted to say was that I had not been sleeping (thus the dark circles) because the change in weather had triggered my inflammation and pain. She nodded kindly and went on about her most recent breakup. This was a clear reminder that in the minds of most, if you get up every day, go to work, and smile at our neighbors, you must be OK.
This is particularly true of family members. It makes my husband and kids feel better to know that I am doing fine. It means I can live up to their expectations of me as mom and wife. There is comfort in knowing the woman of the house is steadfast and strong. It does not matter if you are a stay-at-home mom, a doctor, or the CEO of Google, you are expected to be the person responsible for the emotional health and wellbeing of your family.
It feels like any demonstration of weakness would disrupt the pillars of the family unit and cause anxiety.
Recently, my mom and I went to work on my family’s vacation home. We spent the weekend cleaning, laughing, and waiting for deliveries. Over the course of the three days, my mom must have said, “You know I am almost 80. I am tired” about twenty times. My mom, tired? No way. My response was the same every time. “Mom, you are not getting old. Stop complaining.” A few days later I was retelling this story to a friend who astutely pointed out that my denial of my mom’s increasing age was to make me feel better. If I still saw her as young and energic there would be no way she was getting old. Even as an adult, the concept of not having my mom around is just too scary for me.
I am not advocating walking about all day spewing your aliments — could you image what a dismal life that would be if you said, “My day sucks, you?” This type of conversation is inherently toxic as it prevents you from relishing any points of joy you are having. And to be completely honest, American society encourages us to respond with niceties and templated responses. That is the underpinning of small talk.
Self-preservation. Mental health. The need for social cohesion. The desire to be viewed as strong and stable. These are some of my reasons for defaulting to OK as my answer.
Do these ideas encapsulate everyone’s motivation? Absolutely not. Motivation is produced out of circumstance, and I only have my own to draw from. Others’ will be different.
I have recently decided that it is time to shake up my everyday conversations. Both of my children who live away from me now call every day just to check in. Instead of the rote ‘OK’ response, I have begun saying things like, “Tell me about your day.” or “Guess what happened today?” Both statements serve as a jumping off point to a deeper, more meaningful conversation. In addition to growing closer, I hope that as they grow older, they will realize that…
It is OK to not to be OK.
You may also enjoy reading Speaking Up: Tools and Practices for Claiming Your True Self & Happiness by Melanie Roxas