Franciscan Spirit Blog

Holy, Wholly Healthy: When Your Suffering Can’t Be Seen

I was at a class reunion and so many of my classmates looked great! Most were tan, well-dressed, and happy. As I talked to a few of them one-on-one, I realized many were suffering from health problems. The mobility problems were easy to spot: some used canes, wheelchairs or walkers. Some lived with knee replacements or arthritis. Others who looked and walked well were suffering from invisible health problems. They were frustrated when people said things like, “You are lucky that you are in great health!”

When we do not see someone’s symptoms, we might assume that the person is not suffering. Just because we cannot see a symptom does not mean that one does not exist, or as online-chat-group participant Carolyn Dross says, “My family seems to assume that if they can’t see it, there really is nothing wrong with me.”

Dozens of nonobvious symptoms are often referred to as invisible, hidden or silent symptoms. There can be a dichotomy between how you look and how you may feel. Some hidden health problems can include fatigue, fibromyalgia, mental illness, visual problems, confusion and forgetfulness, stiffness, bladder problems—the list goes on.

‘But You Look So Good!’

The National MS Society has a “But You Look So Good!” support group that addresses hidden symptoms. One of the greatest challenges about hidden symptoms is that, unless you choose to tell people what is bothering you, they do not know that anything is wrong. That might be fine, but when you are asked to do an extra project at work, volunteer or attend evening functions, and you decline, people might judge you and think you are not doing your part or are lazy.

It is a difficult decision, but it might help to disclose your illness. You are not complaining. Telling a few coworkers or neighbors about our health might release some of our own bottled-up emotions and frustrations about looking good but feeling less than healthy.

We all can talk about our diseases. I overheard two people talking a few weeks ago. One woman said she was experiencing fatigue. Her companion responded, “I get tired, too!” There is a big difference between being tired at the end of the day and experiencing the overwhelming fatigue following chemotherapy or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Others might judge us—and we might judge others—because no one knows what is going on inside our bodies. It is a daily challenge for all with hidden symptoms to balance how we feel inside and how we look outside. Sometimes, we wonder if we are imagining these aches and pains ourselves.

When I see someone who looks perfectly healthy to me (usually a person who parks a SUV in a handicapped space and jumps out to enter a store), I immediately judge that person. It really is a lack of trust on my part. I do not know if the person has heart disease, asthma or another problem. Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3 usually calm me down: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”

I vow to never judge a person—although I slip. Sometimes I go to people who look healthy and I tell them outright that I judge them. I tell them I think they are not doing their part and are using their disease as an excuse. And later I apologize for my lack of trust and ask them to forgive me.

I pray for them and their health needs, and I ask God to forgive me and bless me. I feel at peace with a God who is so understanding and forgiving—and healing.

The late Elvis Presley sang the classic Joe South song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” One line from it says a lot: “Before you abuse, criticize or accuse—walk a mile in my shoes.”

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3 thoughts on “Holy, Wholly Healthy: When Your Suffering Can’t Be Seen”

  1. this is so true. many times people will say, oh you look fine, you can’t be sick or tired or whatever. it’s crazy to think that just because they can’t see something it’s not there. I’m glad Jesus sees it all

  2. Perfect! From a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Fibromyalgia person, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your words. Thank you so much. 🧡💚💜

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