"Hi, how are you?"
"Fine, how are you?"
I remember my junior year of college, when rheumatoid arthritis invaded my life and every day was agony. As I pushed myself from class to class, I'd have this "expected" conversation over and over with various people. Except, I began to realize that I could no longer give the standard answer: "I'm fine. How are you?" Because I wasn't fine. On the outside I still looked the same, but in reality I was barely hanging on.
At that time I learned not to answer the question, "How are you?" I'd just smile and move on or say something generic like "Have a good day." For the most part, no one noticed, because they didn't really intend to start a conversation...it was just the polite way of greeting people.
I also learned not to ask other people how they were, unless I really wanted to know and was prepared to stop and listen to their answer. When I did, there were a few people I really connected with. With those few, we were able to share the reality of our circumstances, moving past the fake front of "I'm fine."
Praise God, I survived those awful months of ceaseless pain. The arthritis went into remission, and life carried on. But this week I was reminded again that things are not always as they seem - in our own lives or with those around us.
I think those of us with chronic illness understand this pretty well. We can go somewhere, even though we feel awful, and someone will say, "Hey, good to see you. You look great!" What can we say? "I may look great, but I feel horrible"...? Most people wouldn't believe or understand us.
When I was at my worst point several years ago, whenever someone told me I looked good, I'd go home and stare in the mirror. I'd see the dark circles under my eyes, the pale skin, the dull eyes, and I'd wonder, how can they possibly think I look good? Perhaps with some people it's just their way of trying to encourage us. But sometimes they really don't see what we see.
And that is true for us with others. When we see healthy people walking around, seemingly enjoying life, we may feel envious or think their lives are easy. But in reality almost everyone is struggling with something. They may smile and say they're fine, even though they have a broken heart, or a debilitating fear, or any number of other challenges that we can't see on the surface.
Things aren't always as they seem, for us or for others. Perhaps as we remember this, we'll be able to show more compassion and grace to people. When we don't understand them or feel tempted to criticize or envy them, let's say a prayer for them instead. Let's lift them up to the One who knows and sees everything, in their lives and in ours.