Ah, that phrase. Meant by those who say it to complement. And taken that way, generally. But it is a hallmark of an “invisible” illness. I have heard it many times in recent months. I look perfectly normal, if a bit tired, my general appearance not revealing how I feel or what’s going on under the surface with my health and well-being. My demeanor, unless you know me and observe me for a while, would not show that I am in pain or dealing with debilitating fatigue that drastically limits my activities. I’ve had strangers give me a second, quizzical look when using my seat/cane (now called “Sit-izen Cane” for those who were wondering) in the middle of Target. The question in their eyes: “She looks fine, why is she using that?” No scars, no injury, no hair loss or major medical paraphernalia. Looking great. Hair and makeup done, dressed cute, even somewhat accessorized. However, what doesn’t show is that it took me most of the morning to get that way and this is my one outing of the day.
I have talked about this recently with several friends who have similar experiences. My dear friend and prayer partner for the past 11 years has MS and recently had the worst flare-up of her adult life (back under control, thank God). So many have told her “But you look great!” throughout the years, not understanding why she couldn’t always do what it seemed she should be able to do based on her physical appearance and age. Another dear friend’s beautiful pre-teen daughter struggles with a chronic disease that limits her activities in ways you can’t imagine. But she looks great. Two other life-long friends, now precious online-far-away-friends, have dealt with the same phrase, the same situation, the same feelings, because of their ongoing “invisible” health issues. But they look great.
Sometimes it’s hard to hear “that phrase.” Those words can carry (though not intentionally) into the heart of the hearer a question about the validity of their experience and condition. Can make the hearer feel as if they aren’t really…understood. Not fully seen.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was pondering this phrase after spending time with some friends who hadn’t seen me for a few months, another thought came crashing in on me. That difficult-to-hear, kindly-meant phrase is true for all of us, not necessarily in the realm of physical health, but in our hearts, our minds, our souls. Those around me who “look great” may be carrying burdens I can’t fathom or imagine. Those who seem from the outside to have it all together may suffer from incredible pain they never show. Behind their smiles can be a heaviness, a weight in their hearts they’ve dealt with their whole lives that is beyond my experience or understanding. We are so accustomed to stopping at the surface, just glossing over the outward appearance of a situation or a person and making a judgment from that, not taking the time to look deeper. Like a thunderbolt, the question: Just as I crave compassion, grace, and understanding for my physical condition as I am learning to navigate all of this, shouldn’t I extend the same compassion, grace, and understanding to all of those around me? Shouldn’t my experience make me more sensitive to the fact that appearances can hide such pain and struggle?
All of this is NOT to say I don’t want people to tell me I look great (who doesn’t need to hear that??). And it’s NOT to say that I wish to be defined by my health condition, because I really don’t.
What I DO want is this:
I pray for God’s eyes to truly see people’s hearts, past the “great looking” surface in all of those around me, and to discern the need for my kindness and grace. I pray for a softened and understanding heart, so I can know where people’s experiences that so differ from mine are affecting them, and therefore extend compassion where they need it most.