It Going, Anyway?"
A Poet's Pet Theory and a Game to Test It
by Stephen Wing
published in Co-Options, newsletter of Sevananda Cooperative
Call me lazy, but the sheer number of possible greetings-in-passing, conversational gambits, and substitutes for "hello" finally wore me down. Like an old-fashioned answering machine with no mazelike menu of options, I narrowed them all down to a simple, habitual "How's it going?"
"It's going," approximately two out of three people reply. This deeply philosophical response leads me to believe that my humble query is more profound than it seems. The mythical "it" is going somewhere, everyone seems to agree, but by some unspoken agreement no one asks where. More important than the destination is the quality of the journey, the question seems to imply— as if we can only transcend the inevitability of death through the quality of our living, here and now.
But what to make of the vast range of other answers that third person out of every three keeps coming up with? This question too is a rather leading one. It has led me to believe that exchanging various forms of "hello" is one of the most important of our daily activities. I call it the Theory of How It Goes.
I moved to the South after college without really meaning to, landing in the rural north Georgia county where my mother and grandmother grew up. I stayed and became a Southerner, according to my theory, because I fell in love with the Southern custom of exchanging greetings as a matter of course. Passing on the sidewalks downtown, people of all ages, colors and circumstances would nod and look each other in the eye. Even roaring past each other on the two-lane county roads, my neighbors would wave. Total strangers— even long-haired migrants from up North— were not exempt from this lovely courtesy.
Maybe that's what first started me thinking. Aside from food, water and shelter, the most essential thing to any human being is recognition from his or her fellow humans. Not the kind of recognition where they name buildings after you, but the simplest acknowledgement that you exist: a nod, a wave, a hello, a harmless platitude or two. At bare minimum, even the mere meeting of eyes sends a powerful message of acceptance and connection.
This sense of communal acceptance is so necessary to our sense of self that, like the proverbial fish out of water, we aren't really aware how much we depend on it until we are forced to do without. On crowded city sidewalks, people passing in opposite directions generally ignore each other unless they run into an acquaintance. If this priceless gift of recognition is exchanged between strangers, usually they are strangers who see or sense an affinity based on clothing, hair, skin color, skin decoration, etc.
Amid the vast throngs of strangers in the cities, I theorize, people can only psychologically survive by banding together into tribes. All the people who meet your eyes and acknowledge your existence when you meet— whether strangers or acquaintances— are your tribe. Provided, that is, you also acknowledge them in turn. A casual "How's it going?" reverberates deeply in our being, not only bonding us into tribes by our mutual acknowledgement, but validating each person's very existence as an individual through the mystical meeting of eyes.
In the languages of indigenous nations all over the world, great and small, the name of the tribe itself often translates as "The People." Non-members are intrinsically something less than human. For many millennia, this attitude was supremely useful in helping to bond individual families into a survival unit called a tribe. Since "civilization" is an rather recent mutation in evolutionary terms, this tribal psychology is very much alive in our brains today. But the tendency to divide into tribes and consider other tribes less than human is no longer helpful. It has become a counter-survival trait in our species.
Fortunately, each of us has the power to expand our tribe to include all sorts of people who do not resemble us in clothing, hair, skin color, etc.— merely by meeting their eyes and acknowledging their existence with a nod, a wave, a harmless platitude. And if my theory is correct, it just might be one of the most powerful things we can individually do to save the planet and change the world.
People wandering through a multitude of strangers must get most their psychological nourishment from occasional meetings with members of their tribe. This is the root cause of loneliness, a disease that belongs exclusively to "civilization" and its crowds. But seeing every person in the crowd as a member of your tribe can be a very healing experience for both you and the "stranger."
Looking stranger after stranger in the eye can seem exhausting at first, but once it becomes a habit, it's the same or less expenditure of energy as avoiding those same eyes used to be.
Many of the eyes you attempt to meet will still be avoiding yours. This is
not rejection. Take it as another way of acknowledging you exist. Maybe the
person is well-nourished by a large happy tribe somewhere. Or maybe the person
is preoccupied just then with enormous personal burdens, and the acknowledgement
of your eyes has been a tremendous help, even though the person is unable to
return the favor at the moment . . .
In order to test the Theory of How It Goes and prove its usefulness, I have developed the following game. Its object is to acknowledge as many people as possible in the course of the day by engaging their eyes and uttering the ritual greeting, "How's it going?"
People caught by surprise, not fully awake, or in autopilot mode will respond more or less honestly to the greeting. If they are players, wittingly or not, they will then return the greeting (or a similar one). As in the Asian game Scissors-Rock-Paper, players can compare scores to see who's in a more enthused, exalted, or enlightened state at that moment.
But the ultimate goal is not a tournament in spiritual one-upmanship, but to get everyone on the planet on the same team. This will happen when we discover that through our different social circles or tribes, and their links to others, we are connected to every single member of the human race.
"It's going" is the break-even response to score points in the game. However, the score for this response is zero points. Responses like "Pitiful" and "Rotten" are their own punishment; negative points need not be awarded. Scores for more elevated responses are as follows. (An extra point may also be given for each exclamation point used.)
0: It's going.
1: Not bad.
3: All right.
4: Fair to middlin'.
6: Pretty good.
20: All is One.
Additions to this list are not only allowed, but encouraged. One could say that's the whole point. Just insert them into the above scale of values wherever they fit, and score accordingly.
Keeping score, on the other hand, is not the point. If you find yourself actually totaling up the numbers, you've entered a new category where the object of the game becomes to delve deeply into each exchange, learning as much as you can about each new acquaintance you pass on the sidewalk before moving on.
If doing this gets you into trouble with someone determined to remain a stranger, simply explain that you mistook them for a member of your tribe, which is so wildly diverse that the only way to recognize a fellow member is to utter the secret ritual greeting . . .
"How's it going?"