When Chronic Illness Limits Sympathy

When Chronic Illness Limits Sympathy

Having been chronically ill for seven years has not surprisingly grown my compassion. I'm more aware of other's suffering, and I want to encourage and help them. But something I never expected when I first became ill is that suffering would simultaneously sometimes make it harder for me to feel compassion.

Don't get me wrong, I love people and look for ways to encourage them, but sometimes I can be quick to judge how "bad" someone's suffering is. More than once, I've caught myself thinking things like, "You have a cold?! I wish my suffering was as easy as that." or "Well, you have a chronic illness, but at least you're not as disabled as me."

Of course, some people do suffer much more than others. A cold is arguably not as bad as being chronically ill and severely disabled for years. Having a chronic illness, yet still being able to work is arguably better than being bedridden.

But here is the thing I am sometimes quick to forget: pain is pain, no matter what, and it always hurts. And doesn't Jesus, who suffered the worst possible suffering, the suffering of being abandoned by God on the cross, still have compassion for everyone, no matter the extent of their pain? Doesn't God gather every tear into his bottle?

I think it's human nature to compare, but I rarely (actually never) know someone else's entire story. And even if their pain is arguably not as bad as mine, that doesn't mean they don't need compassion. In fact, they might even need it more so. You see, being sick has become easier for me with time because I have grieved my losses and found acceptance and peace in my circumstances, whereas towards the beginning of my illness my grief was fresher, making it harder for me to cope, even though I wasn't as disabled.

So, the next time someone tells me they have a cold, are feeling stressed by work or school, or whatever their suffering may be, I want to be truly full of compassion. I want to put myself in their shoes and recognize that this is hard for them. I don't want people to feel like they can't tell me about their struggles because I have it "worse" than them. Yes, if someone complains to me about these things, it might be good for me to remind them that there are worse things in life. But there is a fine line between complaining and being pessimistic opposed to simply telling the truth.

I want to have compassion for everyone no matter their struggles and to drop the comparison game. More often than not, comparison is merely a thief of joy. I want to "be content with what [I] have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5)

I want my life to be a reflection of 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too." 

I want to always have compassion and to always put myself in someone else's shoes. 


Excellent post Lauren. I have had most of the same thoughts as you on this topic, especially about how suffering is suffering no matter what, even though it exists in varying degrees. But there are a few differences. These days I almost always feel compassion when a friend complains to me and do not think of comparing their situation to mine, and I’m grateful for that. I’m not sure why this is but I have a few theories. It must be related to how your circumstances, symptoms, and/or life history differ from mine.

When I was so ill that I could not suppress my misery, I was so sensitive to others’ suffering that I often cried if I heard of something tragic that happened to another person, but these days I feel strangely numb and rarely cry, as you said to me recently. Maybe right now, because you and I have improved to the point that we can ignore or suppress our own suffering more, it also suppresses our feelings of sympathy for others. But like you, I’m much more able to understand others’ suffering on an intellectual level than I was before. I’ve also noticed (as have others) that Bartonella Herxing directly reduces the ability to sympathize with others and most untreated people affected by Bartonella have low sympathy, but this is may not be relevant to your case.

As you said, my grief was much fresher and more intense in the beginning even though I was less disabled than now.

Valerie Lindner

Thank you for this post, Lauren!! I can totally relate and feel exactly the same way. Often it is when people complain about fatigue not so much pain, since I know everyone’s pain threshold is different. But I have found that I have little natural compassion for the average person who complains about some fatigue. I am intimately familiar with this constant companion and have learned to do life despite it. However, others have not had that life experience and, like you so eloquently pointed out, need our empathy and compassion with whatever they’re struggling with regardless if we feel like it is “not that bad” or “lesser than” our own physical struggles. Pain and trial is pain and trial. It doesn’t matter what shape or form it comes it. If it’s hard than it’s hard. And in the midst of these difficult moments is when we need to support one another and share the compassion and empathy Jesus so beautifully modeled. We will never experience the level of suffering and hardship He went through as the perfect Son of God on sinful earth. Yet He has mercy and compassion on our weakness. So Lord, give me your compassion for those who are hurting and struggling without comparison or judgment!

Kristin Renfer

When you were 5, you made me colorful ties with paper… you are now 4X older and soon to be 21 and the colorful ties you have made with words are also treasured… blessed to be your earthy father… grateful you know your heavenly father. Thank you for writing.


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