How are you? Those words, usually from a well meaning friend, or a truly concerned loved one, can strike terror in the heart of the suffering. For the tormented who endure chronic pain, or those silent souls who hide their wounds, the question threatens to expose the sufferer to the inspection of their pain.
Those three words enter their isolated world and threaten to undo them.
How can one answer truthfully, honestly, and completely—when the answer would be filled with details, and a depth of agony, that the listener is unable to comprehend? And, as the sufferer is searching for an adequate response, he’s left feeling ashamed for attempting to provide an answer, knowing that the compassionate questioner cannot possibly enter their world to empathize. They cannot answer for fear of being misunderstood, or their sincerity questioned (or perhaps their sanity).
The question itself is a reminder of the sufferer’s isolation.
And so, the easiest route to take, is to mumble a reply that provides a half-hearted sufficiency in an attempt to remove the danger of exposure.
The afflicted typically reply with the ready response: “I’m okay” and that may be all they can muster, or it may be their default answer to protect themselves from bringing something into the light they so desperately want to keep hidden.
We may need to find a more creative path to uncover the needs of the suffering heart other than the invasive “How are you” question.
I’ve watched LeRoy attempt to respond to that question. And it is so hard. I’ve watched as people tell him how well he looks, or how he seems to be improving. And I’ve known that as they are making those comments, a horrific muscle spasm is making its way up his thigh and into his groin—pulling his leg so hard, he feels it might rip from his body—as he attempts to cover the pain, in order to converse with the questioner and not alarm them.
People don’t realize things like: the reason that he wears shorts even in the middle of winter’s frigid temperatures, is because his leg is searing from the burning nerve pain that never ends, and it’s just too hard to place anything at all near it. Or the reason that he pushes himself to be more mobile, isn’t that he’s no longer in pain or that he’s feeling well, or has suddenly improved dramatically—no, he pushes himself to move because he fears if he doesn’t, that he’ll lose his ability to move altogether.
But, I’ve watched as he exerts himself to do far more than he feels he can—only to pay dearly for it through the night with painful episodes that keep him from sleeping.
For those of us who long to come alongside the sufferer to provide help, it is important to be mindful that they are weary of answering the question of how they are feeling. They need the opportunity to voice their pain—but in voicing that pain, they fear that it may trigger more pain. They fear that in sharing, it will be more than the listener is ready to receive, or more than they have the emotional capacity to share.
I’ve learned that it is best to patiently and gently approach those who are traumatized by their pain and be willing to wait.
Let the sufferer know you are praying for them, ask if there is anything specific you might be able to do for them, but wait for them to voice their pain when they are ready. Always, always, be asking the Holy Spirit to direct your conversation with them that you might bless them and not accidentally add to their suffering.
As a caregiver for one who is fighting a daily battle with pain, it is imperative that I ask God for grace to follow the command of Colossians 3:12:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . .”
We can only “put on” compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, through the power of Christ, accessing the grace He provides.
We must patiently set aside the need to know every detail of how our loved one is feeling, or what they are thinking, and simply display the compassion of one who is willing to step into the pain with our loved one. Compassion doesn’t demand answers, but watches for opportunities to serve the hurting.
Kindness steps in to serve, supplying the need that is evident without requiring information from a weary sufferer.
The sufferer knows that you know they are suffering, but they don’t want that to be the focal point of your relationship. Instead, treat them in a normal way, talk to them about subjects in the same way that you would with any other friend. Ask how their kids are doing, talk about the latest sports event, or tell them about a new hobby you have—just like you would if they weren’t ill.
LeRoy doesn’t want his illness to be the focus or the topic of every conversation, in fact, most who are suffering would like the opportunity to put their mind on something else.
I’m not saying that we should ignore their suffering, but don’t treat them as though their illness is their identity.
If the sufferer was a social bug before, or enjoyed group activities, offer to include them in any way you can—they have the option to decline, but at least give an opportunity to accept your invitation if they feel they can. The sufferer lives an isolated life, and when you offer to include them in normal activities, it helps them to feel that you view them as more than just a person with a disability, or an illness.
When you treat the sufferer as a valuable person, rather than a victim of suffering, it helps to remove the stigma that they feel characterizes them.
When the setting is right, and seems appropriate, introduce laughter—tell them your latest funny story or most embarrassing moment you had recently. Laughter is so very important, and hard to come by, when you’re living an isolated and pain-filled existence.
And finally, if you tell your friend you’re praying for them, don’t let it be just a “Christian buzz phrase” but actually pray. Don’t think lightly of the ministry of prayer. As you come alongside the sufferer and offer heartfelt intercession for them, in their presence, it can provide them with the reassurance of the Lord’s care for them and is an opportunity for the two of you to join together in that intimate work of the Spirit.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.” (James 5:16)
For a believer who has a suffering friend or loved one, no matter how difficult it is to attempt to minister to them, we are commanded to “put on compassionate hearts and kindness” (Colossians 3:12) and one way we can do that, is by being sensitive in how we approach them. The next time you see that friend, instead of asking “How are you?” perhaps begin that conversation with: “It is so good to see you, I’ve missed getting together with you . . .” and before you walk away, pray with them.