Medical Mondays: Sticks & Stones and Hurtful Words

Once upon a time someone said something hurtful...and it was me.

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?


  1. I initially read the first sentence in your second paragraph as, "Our group of women poisoned ourselves into a circle..." which can be true too, unfortunately. LOL. Thank you for reminding me to extend compassion. I am esp terrible about offering medical advice to my daughter in her chronic condition. She has told me to knock it off and bring over cookies. Other times I have been an At Leaster, which I write about here:

    1. Great blog post, Lynne. Thanks for sharing it. I find I like to do the "at least" thing with myself to remind myself to be thankful, but yeah, when someone else does it that's not helpful usually. You hear that they are minimizing your pain and feel you should get over it. I once had a friend telling me about her struggle and to empathize I told her a similar story in my life. She started saying how my difficult was so much worse than hers and so she shouldn't be talking about it, etc. and that was so not the point I was trying to make. I told her, "Suffering is suffering." It's not about who's is worse or "more impressive." Compassion and love go a lot farther than weighing things on a scale. And in conclusion, yeah, cookies are always a good choice! =)

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for your blog and this post. I've been struggling with chronic pain and have heard all the "advice" in your examples. I smile and nod, but it makes me feel so alone because nobody understands. The one I am the most sensitive to is, "so have you been able to get off your meds yet?" That makes me feel like they're saying I'm weak or that I like having to take pain medication. I don't. What do you think they really mean? I'll try harder to extend grace and keep reading your blog!

    1. Hi! Thank you for sharing here, and I'm so sorry for what you are going through. Chronic pain is such a hard thing to accept--for those who suffer it and those who don't! People who don't understand just want the problem to get better (don't we all!) so they say things hoping for something positive to talk about. Next time you hear that, think, "They want me to feel better because they care." I know what you mean about feeling like people are just waiting for you to get better, when you aren't going to get better. I was reading a book the other day about the philosophies behind illness. In our culture especially, there is sickness and health. If you get sick, you're supposed to get better. There's isn't room in people's minds for long-term sickness, partly because if they can't explain it away, then it might happen to them. That scares people, so instead they focus on fixing. So I hope the next time someone says something that hurts, you'll know it is likely less about you and more about them.
      You know, this is an important point you've brought up. Maybe I'll do a whole post on it! Thanks for the idea. I hope your day is filled with grace and some encouragement too!

  3. Wow! That is absolutely just what I needed to hear and what a great way to look at it. I have never commented on a random person's blog before, but just felt an incredible urge to do so here. I am so glad I did. :)

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you came over to visit!


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