IT’s always done with the best of intentions. We see someone, we feel a measure of compassion for them. We approach them. We reach out to them. Most people appreciate being asked. But not everyone. Those who have no foreseeable way of ever being ‘better’ than they are often dread being asked. Sometimes to them, we utter the fateful words and all our good intentions are undone. I’ve been on both sides of these conversations. Lately, I’ve been on a side I never thought I’d spend too much time on. Before I explain myself, I need to tell you a weird story.
When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them and healed their sick.
BEFORE I talk about Stephen King’s, The Green Mile, I need to disclose a journey I’ve been on secretly for the past fifteen years or so. Some of us are born with gifts and natural abilities. My journey began because I was frustrated that I wasn’t naturally what I knew I needed to be for the call Christ had on my life. People would tell me that I had a gifts to teach and lead. Many pastors would be content with this. I wasn’t. I began a habit each Sunday morning before I went to church. I didn’t tell anyone. I would go for a walk and pray. I asked God to change my heart, to give me compassion for others, to help me to hear people, to help me to see people, to help me to help people. I prayed to God that people would be healed as they heard the Word preached.
And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”
After a few years, my heart had been softened toward others in answer to these pleading prayers. There was an embarrassing downside to this answer to my prayers though – and it has nearly jeopardised Kim’s willingness to accompany me to the movies! I now cry easily at anything remotely moving in a movie. Several times on an interstate flight while watching a movie Kim has jabbed me and told me to “Stop it!” The sobbing I thought I am concealing in a very mild manly manner is apparently not that manly or concealed!
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.
First Thessalonians 2:7
This prayer for supernatural compassion has continued all these years later. And here’s where it now gets nearly too weird for Stephen King. I mentioned from the pulpit the other Sunday that as I have been praying that God would help me to be a faithful pastor. But something strange has been happening. I prayed for someone with a ‘kink’ inside their neck causing them headaches. Shortly after this I was diagnosed a kink inside my neck (after an MRI exam) causing me to have headaches. I prayed for someone with painfully irritated tongue. I began to have an irritated tongue. I prayed for someone with what sounded like a bulging spinal disc causing them back-pain and someone else unable to come to church due to their back-pain. I then began to experience excruciating back-pain and was diagnosed by another MRI with two bulging spinal discs. I prayed for someone with an infected toe. Soon after this I walked bare-footed onto my lush lawn to water it and was suddenly bitten on my toe by a ‘Jack Jumper’ (think, ‘Fire Ant‘) which overnight turned into an infected toe. And then I received a prayer request from a dear friend in Missouri, Pastor Ted Heaston, asking me to pray for his left ankle to recover. This week I was discharged from hospital (for the second time in two weeks) with a severely infected left ankle!
On the day that I hear that Pastor Ted is now in the clear with his ankle, I too have just come from my doctor and heard that my infection is now subsiding. There are other examples of this sort of thing, but these samples give you the idea of what’s been happening in my world over the past few months in particular. This has given me a new insight into the world of those who are unwell, injured, in pain, or sick. Armed with this insight, and now having to endure my own chronic conditions which I won’t bore you with, I can tell you there are things you shouldn’t ask a person who is having their own health battles, especially, How are you?
For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Second Corinthians 5:2-4
EXPERIENCED CARERS LEARN THE LANGUAGE OF CARE
Genuinely caring people can have the best of intentions but be unhelpful in either their comments or questions. On the other side these conversations, I can say that it is nice to know that someone cares when you hurt. One of the reasons a question like, How are you? can hurt so much is that it can show a lack of consideration and thoughtfulness. Similarly, those in pain can also feel a bit exasperated when someone says to them,’You’re looking well. I guess you’re now better.‘ And probably the worst thing to say is, “I know exactly what you’re going through!“
¶ Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
Second Corinthians 1:3
People who are not well can get tired answering the question, “So how are you?” (Especially when it should be obvious that they are not well – or worst still, there is some evidence that this is their new reality.) Instead, try this, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” “Would you like me to get you a chair?” “Can I carry that for you?” Experienced carers who have a relationship with the one who is hurting can get away with things like, “How can I best pray for you?” Often times this invites the hurting one to share what they feel comfortable sharing. The problem with always being asked, “How are you?” is that after a while you feel you’re invalid who just whinges all the time! During one of my recent stints in hospital, I appreciated being asked by nurses and doctors, “Are you in pain at the moment?” Or, “Can I get you something for your pain?”
As I’ve said, most people appreciate being asked how they are. But, the next time you meet a grieving parent, a chronically ill person, someone physically disabled, or someone battling depression, you’ll now know what to ask and what not to ask. And if you ask me to pray for your rare exotic medical condition, forgive me if I hesitate for a moment before I pray for you, but at least now you’ll know why!
[See also: Comforting Complex Grievers]