“A moment’s insight
is sometimes worth
a life’s experience”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
It was around 7:30 in the morning when I parked my car and grabbed my purse. I was in a hurry, but as I noticed the woman who sat near the entrance to the store where I was headed, my immediate reaction was to sit still for a moment and observe her.
Her clothing was baggy and mismatched. Her bare feet were dirty and the strands of cropped, brown hair that escaped from beneath her knit cap looked oily. When she stood up, a urine stain on her pants became visible, and I tried to push away the thought that entered my mind: Oh my gosh, what must she smell like?
She dug inside a mammoth-sized purse with feverish determination, as though she were searching for something of great importance that she wasn’t able to find. And as she frantically combed through the contents, trash by the handfuls gathered about her feet. Suddenly she shouted a few curse words at someone I was unable to see, slung the purse over her shoulder and ambled off in the direction of the adjacent grocery store, leaving behind a trail of rubbish.
At one time I believed I could accurately evaluate someone’s private pain by noticing how they dress, observing their body language, or critiquing the words they use to communicate. But shortly after my fibromyalgia diagnosis I began to notice that my assessments were not only just occasionally on the mark, they were never completely fair.
Such a judgment can be especially tricky when a person looks “completely normal” on the outside. Because it’s not always possible to accurately gauge the level of pain that lies beneath a person’s casual smile.
Take Kerilyn for example. When I first met her, she was the lovely wife of a worship pastor and the devoted mother of two, adorable, little girls. Her brown eyes sparkled whenever she spoke about her love for music. And as far as I knew, she never gave any indication that she had endured agonizing back pain for over three years.
I heard that her husband had accepted a pastoral position with another church in a city several hours away. And though I had not had an opportunity to know Kerilyn well, I realized after they moved away that I missed her. Then when my fibro diagnosis was handed down with little explanation as to how I should handle the physical and emotional pain of a very different lifestyle, a mutual friend said to Chuck, “You should to take Paula to visit with Kerilyn. I’ll bet she could help.”
Eventually Kerilyn and I were reunited, and I was astounded to discover that in addition to back pain, she had been experiencing debilitating symptoms similar to mine. She briefly described her illness, and I could tell that her natural ability to hide pain was on shaky ground.
I sensed that she didn’t really want to go over the details, but I urged her to tell me more about her recent diagnosis. “What’s it called?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a complicated word, and I’m sure you won’t recognize it,” she said at first, seeming rather embarrassed. Then I asked her, “Is it called fibromyalgia syndrome?”
Kerilyn’s round eyes widened. “Yes!” she replied. “That’s what I have. How did you know?”
“I have it too,” I said. “We’re kindred spirits.”
The following Sunday, back at my home church, Regi’s smile welcomed me as I entered the foyer. My entire body ached and I knew that if he reached out to hug me it was really going to hurt. “How are you doing,” he asked with a tip of his head. I immediately knew that he was somehow acquainted with my pain. Later, I learned that Regi had been coping with severe arthritis pain since childhood. Yet he managed to eagerly greet people on Sunday mornings, and in a moment he was able to empathize with my fragile state.
Over the following months I came to terms with the folly of my judgmental nature, and I started to recognize other people in pain. So each time my hands shook while trying to pay for groceries; when my legs grew weak and my balance became so uncertain that I needed to buy a cane to help me walk; as my mind clouded over with “fibro fog”, I remembered the unseemly plight of that dear woman in front of the grocery store.
After that I adopted a new hobby. I take mental snapshots of hurting and mentally ill, as the Spirit points them out to me, and I store them away in my cerebral database where they serve as continual reminders that I’m not the only one who’s struggling.
Then when life demands that I struggle to do push-ups, I’m better able to courageously accept the challenge.
“In the same way you judge others,
and with the measure you use,
it will be measured to you.”
A RUST REMOVER …
Allow the Holy Spirit to help you examine your thoughts for the next 24 hours. Give Him permission to alert you when you unconsciously pass judgment on someone. Then try to identify the reason why you responded in that way. Were you raised within a judgmental household or culture? Has a particularly painful life experience tarnished your view of the world? Take a mental snapshot of those insightful moments to recall and reflect upon down the road.