How are you? RUOK? I mean really, not the polite, surface response! Do you have people to talk to when life is a struggle? I hope so. We all need that. One recent survey said that 25% of Americans have no one that they feel close enough with to share a problem. That’s shocking to me! It’s shocking both because of the level of loneliness out there, but also because people who are disconnected are more vulnerable to physical and mental health issues.
What happened? How did we become so disconnected from each other?
When you travel or live in different cultures, you learn many different ways that people stay connected. I learnt many when I moved to New Zealand. I was due to meet a prominent Maori hip-hop dancer, who also happened to be gay. As a recent Australian arrival on Kiwi shores, I hadn’t yet learnt Maori greeting etiquette. I approached him with my hand outstretched, but soon realized that he was moving straight in past my hand. I prepared myself for a hug. That was okay, friendly for a first meeting but okay. So I raised my arms to hug him but quickly found that he was heading past my arms and straight towards my face. This surprised me, but I didn’t want to flinch. So I gathered myself, European style, for a kiss on the cheek. His face kept moving toward me. I realized that he was heading straight for my face. Determined not be the uptight honky Aussie, I braced myself, puckered up and smacked one right on his lips.
My new friend laughed, told me not to worry, and explained the Maori custom of the Hongi, where two people rub noses as a greeting. The beautiful symbolism of the Hongi is the sharing of breath. Two people come together, very close together as I discovered and become one in breath. Breath unites us. It’s an uncomfortable ritual if you’re not used to it. It certainly took me out of my comfort zone. But it’s so powerful!
Not everyone greets each other with Hongis, but I discovered in New Zealand that most people use some Maori language and customs and it genuinely seems to unite the country in a way that I never experienced in Australia or now in America.
Many people in New Zealand greet each other with the words “kia ora”. It means “be well”. And they also say “kia kaha” which you might say to someone going through a challenge, and it means “Be Strong! Both expressions sound powerful, and leave you feeling strong and supported.
There are many global greeting rituals and words. Among the African Masai tribes, considered the most fearless warriors, their traditional greeting was “Kasserian ingera”, which means “are the children well?” It’s still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the value that the Masai place on their childrens’ well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own give the traditional answer. “All the children are well.” It means more than just that children are well. When society treats children well, society is well. It’s all related.
In the west, we tend to keep things at a surface level. We ask each other, “How are you?” and answer “Fine!” Which is fine if you’re fine, but what if you’re not?
I like to mix in company where people celebrate your success, but it’s also ok NOT to be ok. We don’t have to solve each other’s problems, but we can be with each other through the struggles of life just as we are through the joys. If I’m not prepared to hear an honest answer, I shouldn’t ask the question. If I ask the question, I need to accept the answer.
My experience living in different places is that cultures that remain connected to the land and indigenous traditions are far more connected to each other. I don’t know what it is, but would love to think we could create new western rituals to remind each other that we are not alone, that we have each others’ backs. Maybe we just need to borrow from other cultures.
The Sanskrit word “namaste”, is another powerful greeting word. Namaste has become a common greeting in western meditation groups, churches and yoga classes. The root of the word “namaste” is “nama” to bow and “te” to you. Another way to think about “nama” is “not mine” (na- not, ma-mine). When I bow, I get my ego out of the way, meaning that I get my belief that I exist separate from others, out of the way. I press my hands near my heart to indicate my heartfelt respect and compassion. When we greet from this place, and get our egos out of the way, there is only one of us. How powerful! How reassuring! My wellbeing is bound up with yours.
RUOK? I hope so, but if you’re not it’s ok to say so, and either way I want to be a person who will stand with you and reflect your inner strength. Be well. Be strong. Wholeness and strength in me greets and honors the same in you. Namaste!