I was at a missions seminar and we'd split into groups of men and women. Our group of women positioned ourselves into a circle and it was a time to have an open forum, maybe for us brand new missionaries to ask questions of the seasoned ones. I can't remember.
What I do remember is ruining the entire thing. My question had good intentions. At the time I was fresh out of college, very intimidated by people, and did not know how to build real relationships with women. I wanted to ask something like how to connect with married women when I was single and didn't feel we had much in common.
It came out all wrong. It sounded like I was saying that I was in ministry and they were just at home with their kids and I connected with their husbands but not them, and I don't even know what else it sounded like, but it must have been bad because next thing you know I am hearing all kinds of horror stories from them about how single women have misunderstood them and said and done hurtful things during their years on the field.
It was horrible.
Once the very-not-delightful session broke up and I had maybe stopped crying, two of the wives came over to me. They did not give me the lecture I deserved, nor did they guilt trip me on my lack of sensitivity, awareness or understanding. Instead, they gave me grace. They told me what it was like from their perspective and how a single woman could, indeed, build good relationships with married women.
Those women genuinely helped me. My future relationships with the married women on the mission field were real thanks to what I learned from them, because they set aside what I'm sure they felt by my ill-chosen words and looked past to what I needed.
What does all this have to do with chronic illness? We who are sick long-term often hear statements that just plain hurt. People say the wrong thing. They say things the wrong way. Sometimes they sound superior, uncaring, or just plain mean.
Remembering this story reminds me that I, too, have done the same. In a situation where we don't understand, cannot understand, we often spit out words that are the exact opposite what they should be or even what we want them to be. We don't know what to say or do, and what we do end up saying or doing ends up hurting rather than helping.
That scene above happened over ten years ago, but I still badly about it, still wish I had said the right thing, still wish they knew that I did not intend for my ignorance to come out in a way that hurt.
It seems this kind of thing happens most to people who are suffering pain--whether physical, emotional or spiritual. People want to encourage someone who is grieving a loss and their words sound flippant and inconsiderate. People want to help a parent with a wayward child but their words end up making that parent feel judged.
There are times when people say things intentionally hurtful. However, many times they are trying to say something helpful and we hear something hurtful instead, such as:
What they say: Get Well Soon!
What we hear: Your illness can't be chronic. You should be getting better.
What they say: Have you tried this vitamin/treatment/cure?
What we hear: If you'd just try harder, you could fix this.
What they say: God is the great Healer.
What we hear: This illness isn't going away because you aren't spiritual enough.
What they say: I get headaches too.
What we hear: You're just complaining. It's not that bad.
What they say: Maybe if you exercised more...
What we hear: You're using sickness as an excuse to be lazy.
Ouch. Forget the sticks and stones, words hurt (even the ones we hear that people didn't actually say). I know that. I also know, however, that we with chronic illness can easily fall into the temptation of deciding everyone is against us, people are uncaring, and we should go hide somewhere and nurse our wounds where no one can hurt us anymore.
That is not a good path to travel. Dwelling on negative things actually hurts us more than the negative thing itself. It hurts us physically, emotionally and spiritually. That's a lot of suffering resulting from somebody else's offhand remarks.
There have been times (like above) when I blew it and said the wrong thing the wrong way. Haven't you? When you did, if someone responded defensively or in anger, did that help you grow in your understanding? Likely not. However, if that person responded with grace and kindly expressed their perspective, you would have the resources you needed to say the right thing next time, or at least get closer to it.
Thus, instead of feeling the victims of frequent verbal attacks, let's consider ourselves ambassadors. When facing hurtful comments due to lack of understanding, let's use those as an opportunity to help others grow in their understanding of what it is really like in our shoes. (Note: I'm not talking about deliberately unkind or judgmental people, those are the people who will never get it and don't want to--see: Some People Will Never Get It)
The Bible says we have all said something we shouldn't and so shouldn't get all worked up about what other people are or might be saying. To put it exactly, here are the verses in Ecclesiastes 7:21-22:
Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others.
We should extend grace for ignorance and lack of understanding, and if it is more than that, if it is sin, we should extend forgiveness, not forgetting the verse before the two above:
For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin.
Forgiveness and grace. A much better way to live than bitterness and hurt.
I like the word ambassador much more than the word victim. To me it sounds powerful. Strong. Victorious.
How does it sound to you?