It’s OK to not be OK, or is it?

“How are you?”
“OK. You?””

There are many reasons “OK” has become a default response. Its meaning ranges from “My life is as good as it could be.” to “I’m in the middle of a personal/physical/mental health crisis.” Finding space and making space to genuinely share how we are can be challenging. Here is an essay that explores the many ways being “OK,” or not, has an impact on our personal and professional lives. It includes a number of reflections from my experiences of the past three weeks.

In this post:

Story: It’s OK to not be OK, or is it?

On Friday, July 1 my daughter, Rachel, and I attended the SummerFest music festival. In our explore of the grounds before our 8:00 pm concert, we came across the Hope For The Day (HFTD) booth. The group addresses mental health issues with the goal of bringing the topic of mental health challenges into the light of day. Among the many resources the group had to share were silicon wrist bands with the statement, “It’s OK to not be OK.” While talking with Becca Milligan, Marketing & Events Director of HFTD, we discussed the meaning of the wrist bands. They serve to remind the wearer that they are OK, even on bad days. They also serve to be a symbol of ally ship to others, as well as a reminder that not everyone is “OK.” Both Rachel and I took a wrist band.

On Sunday, July 3 we attended Milwaukee’s Lakefront fireworks.

We found a place up front at the edge of the sidewalk along the water. The spot did everything we needed. While settling in, we were surprised by the detonation of a single firecracker. It wasn’t a big firecracker, but it clearly triggered something in the patriarch of the family next to us. He was clearly agitated by the sound. It was not clear if the gentleman had experienced a dangerous situation involving fireworks near children or if he was having a flashback to an experience involving firearms. The situation passed but it was a reminder of how little I knew how to deal with an individual experiencing post-traumatic stress in a public setting. While adopting the attitude, “Not my problem” is convenient, it seems strange to apply at a gathering celebrating who we are as a nation.

In the following days we had the opportunity to spend time with a kaleidoscope of people and the experiences they bring to our time together. On Tuesday, we had lunch with a couple of old friends. They are, understandably, still affected by the murder of their daughter and grandchildren in 2020. On Wednesday we gathered for dinner with friends. As I looked around the table, I realized that all of us had been immediately affected by the loss of family members to murder or suicide. For some of us these losses are very present. For others, they are a background element of who we are.

One of the group mentioned that they are still getting over the trauma associated with the memorial service for their mother a month ago: she had died last year. While the feelings of sadness were associated with the memorial service, I suspect the service was also a trigger for the grief of losing their child to suicide a few years ago. There would have been no benefit to point out my speculation. Our purpose in gathering was not to act as a therapy session but to be open to acknowledging each other. We have made a practice of showing up as whole persons being present to each other as whole persons.

While developing this piece, I tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. The viral infection has required me to both face not being OK and to let others know I am not OK. I had to let my research partner know I have an infection that might keep me from the commitments I have made to him and the project. In reflecting on the graciousness of my research partner I recalled times when things in his personal life required us to adjust our research plan. It is not that my partner owes me the courtesy they have extended, it is a recognition of the complexity of the lives we bring to the table and our willingness to acknowledge those complexities.

I am fortunate to be able to engage with people who I can share with at a level beyond the surface. This includes the commitment to ask of each other deep questions and to be aware of when to refrain from doing so. These are the relationships that energize me. They are also the relationships where I am challenged to learn about myself. I am gifted with the opportunity to be with people who are open to experiencing me as I am. I am honored to be with people who trust me enough to allow me to experience them as they are.

I am aware of places and relationships where showing up as a whole person is not valued. Pete Seeger reminded us, there is a season…” Those of us who cannot hide who we are do not have the luxury of compartmentalizing who we are from what we do. Hiding who we are generates physical and emotional costs which are a deduction from being our best selves. In contrast, listening to people like Toto Wolff, head of the Mercedes Formula One racing team, suggests that one of the features of high performing teams is they support and celebrate team members bringing their whole selves to the team. The culture of such organizations holds that the team does not have the luxury of compartmentalizing who we are from what we do. Avoiding, or ignoring, the wholeness of others is a clear sign of wasted capacity.

Food for thought:

  • How do you know when it’s OK to not be OK?
  • For you, where are the places where it’s OK to not be OK?
  • What messages do you receive (through policies, procedures/practices, behavior of peers, etc.) regarding when it’s OK to not be OK within your community/organizational life?
  • How do you check in to truly know if others are OK?
  • As a Servant-Leader, how do you influence what it means to be “OK” in the places where you serve?
  • How do we evaluate the systems we engage with to ensure they account for the realities of human existence?

Make a difference/Be the difference

  • “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” This is not an invitation to be selfish, it is a reminder to make sure we have the capacity to support others.
  • Self-care is a critical part of our capacity to serve others. For me, diet, exercise, talking with good people, and writing are my medicines. Know yours.
  • Hope For The Day (HFTD) is a resource for individuals and organizations who wish to learn more about mental health services. If you are someone who facilitates the delivery of educational services within your organization, please consider HFTD as a resource for raising the level of conversation within your organization.
  • The national mental health hotline (988) is available as of Saturday, July 16, 2022. Share this resource whenever you can.
  • Listening is serving.


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Dan Lococo, PhD Barrier Knocker Downer Contact me: (Message Twitter: @danlococo LinkedIn profile

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