The chronically ill walk a fine line between honesty and duplicity.
Loving, well-intentioned friends and acquaintances frequently ask us how we’re doing. But “How are you?” is typically used as a social greeting in the same category as “Good to see you.” and “How are the kids?”
Most people who ask the question “How are you?” don’t have the time or interest, at least at that moment, for people to talk about how they’re truly feeling.
We may mean it when we say those words, but hearing a literal answer to the literal question is usually not our intent when we ask, right?
Which can feel disheartening to the chronically ill person, since at any moment in time we’re probably not feeling fine. In fact, we’ve learned to push through our pain if we want to interact with family and friends.
Feeling “fine” is often a memory the chronically ill grieve.
In many ways, our lives are not like the lives of our healthy friends and family. We do not have the same choices. Illness may have taken a toll on our finances and career. I may have eroded family relationships. Living with chronic illness means dealing with feelings and circumstances that healthy people are often unaware of. Talking about how we truly feel can sound like complaining, and if we tell people how we really feel every time we feel that way (which is often awful and exhausted every day), we run the risk of sounding like ungrateful, unspiritual wimps and whiners.
So we choose something polite to say, which is usually “Fine.” And we smile and push away resentment for the question. Especially if we’ve been saying “fine” for years when we’re really not so very NOT fine. Besides, if we’re or a social event, we’ve come to enjoy the event and the people. We don’t want to be defined by our illness.
If we’re lucky, we have friends who know what living with illness looks like for us. They probe beneath the surface because they want to help lift the burden, whatever it may be for us. They understand that compassion is an expression of love. They understand that suffering and pain are not to be borne alone.
I appreciate one dear woman who sits near me at church on Sundays. I don’t know her well. She always asks me the dreaded “How are you?” question. Then she tilts her head and follows it with one word: “Really? How are you really?”
The simple question “Really?” tells me she cares about more than a superficial answer.
I don’t go into detail, but I’m always honest when I answer. “It’s been a rough week. My walking has been pretty rough.” “I’m having increasing cramping and pain in my legs.” “My fatigue has really put me down this week.”
She always takes my hands and promises to pray. In less than a minute she has reached out and helped bear a burden.
I’m grateful for this woman who cares enough to ask me for more than a polite answer. It’s not necessary for everyone to do what she does every time they approach someone with chronic illness or who may be suffering in other ways, but it means a lot to know that people will pause and ask about our pain.
Last summer I went to our local zoo with my son’s family, who had come to visit. I knew I couldn’t walk the zoo, so I rented a motorized scooter. Even though I was using a scooter, I was exhausted after several hours and needed to find a place to cool off and rest. I drove the scooter toward the front of the zoo and pulled off under a tree to rest. People passed by me by the hundreds as they headed toward the exit. After I’d been sitting for about thirty minutes or so, a young black man approached me with a concerned look on his face.
“Ma’am, can I help you with anything? Are you all right? Can I get you something? Do you need assistance?”
I reassured him that I was waiting for my family and thanked him. But for more than a year, I’ve pondered what drove that one person to approach me and ask if I needed help. What gave this young man eyes of compassion when hundreds of other people never considered that a lone, obviously exhausted handicapped woman who appeared to be looking for someone might need help?
Do we see the crowd, or do we look for those in need in a crowd?
Who’s in need in your crowd? How can you help the sick and hurting in your community? Perhaps you could bring a meal, grocery shop, do yard work, run to the post office, watch their favorite TV show/athletic event with them, fix their car, help with home maintenance (no one in this house can change light bulbs), purchase their favorite fruit or flowers, or simply stop by for a visit.
Ask God to place one or two people in your life to occasionally look in the eye and ask “Really? You know, it’s easy to look good on the outside and still hurt like crazy on the inside.”
In body, soul, or spirit.
Who has asked you about how you are? What has it meant to you? Who have you helped to encourage and how?
One woman who