During my early days of widowhood I found it very difficult to ask others for help. It was hard to go from the built-in support of a husband to compiling a list of candidates for something as routine as a ride to a medical appointment. Not wanting to be an imposition on anyone, I would try to size-up my situation and figure out if there was a portion of it I could manage myself. And while this was a commendable goal, it was, at times, not without consequences.
One Sunday morning I sat down in my favorite chair to relax for a few minutes. My attention was drawn to the air conditioner in the west living room window. The weather was turning cool and I would need it taken out soon. There were enough capable men I could ask to do the job, and I decided that if I at least took the unit out of the window then whoever came to my aid could take it to the basement. A fair division of labor, I concluded.
The air conditioner didn’t look so big from this side of the window but I had forgotten that the bulk of the machine is on the outside. I only lifted the window sash a fraction when the unit started to slide. I tried to stop it but gravity was against me. It was quickly heading out of the third floor window. I had an “I Love Lucy” moment of logic when for a split second I thought I could stop it by grabbing onto the cord. Thank goodness the cord slipped out too quickly for me to get a hold of it, saving me from a wrenched shoulder or worse.
When I saw the air conditioner land, I was first overcome with a sense of profound dread. Had it damaged the siding on the house? Had it killed any unsuspecting animal? Had this moment been caught on someone’s iPhone only to end up on “YouTube”? I ran down the stairs and out to the side lawn. To my relief I discovered that the house hadn’t a scratch on it, no neighborhood pet had been injured, and there wasn’t a pair of feet wearing stripped socks and ruby slippers under the mangled mass of metal and wires. Only a bush lost a few branches.
Once the damage was assessed and the shock wore off, I collapsed into a fit of hysterical laughter. My diaphragm couldn’t stop convulsing, as if my overwrought nerves kept firing electric shocks at it. At the heart of my frenzied laughter was the humiliating recognition of well-intended stupidity. This moment, and many others less dramatic, has made me wonder why it is so hard to ask for help.
In a society that reveres independence, we assume that asking for help makes us look incapable of taking care of ourselves, weak, at worst vulnerable. We fear that it might ultimately result in our loss of control. And then there’s the concern of becoming a burden. I frequently worry that a spate of ill health may over-tax a friendship. I don’t want to drain the “cup of kindness” dry with too many requests for help.
But I’ve discovered a few coping skills over time. At the core of it is a dependable support network of friends and family who have already seen me through many situations. When approaching them for help, I’m completely honest and specific about my needs. I don’t under-report but I’m also ready to negotiate. Maybe one friend can take me to the doctor’s and another one can pick me up. As soon as I know I’m going to need help, especially if it’s a complex undertaking, I set up a timeframe and start the conversation with my network early. A friend may first need check and adjust her schedule before she can commit to helping me.
In a society that reveres independence, we assume that asking for help makes us look incapable of taking care of ourselves, weak, at worst vulnerable.
I often have a plan A, B, and maybe C as problems can arise for the people who have offered to help me. But I make it clear to Friend B that she’s a back-up driver should Friend A not be able to take me at the last minute. I learned this lesson from a friend’s grandmother. She got into the habit of asking too many people for a ride to church. One Sunday they all showed up. The next Sunday no one came, each assuming that the other person was picking her up.
Shortly after Mike died and I resumed singing in my church choir, I was struck by a verse we chant every week. “He shall adopt for His own the orphan and widow.” (Second Antiphon). And this has been proven to me in the form of many people. Lorraine who spent the night after my nasal surgery and changed my bloody bandages. Mary Jo and Nancy who drove me to eye surgeries, and Dawn who stopped by after each one with chicken soup. Tania who heard me struggle to catch my breath over the phone one Saturday night and came right over to take me to Urgent Care to be treated for bronchitis. Tania’s husband, Justin, who has helped me countless times with the seasonal putting in and taking out the air conditioner. (I have since done my part in a way that makes sense: I had a bracket installed to the window frame that prevents the unit from slipping out.) And help has come from some of the most unexpected sources; people who I thought would neither have the time nor the inclination have readily come to my aid. But it was my responsibility to seek out their help and then gratefully accept it in the form that it was offered to me.
Asking for and accepting help boils down to two key factors: ego and trust. We confuse humiliation for humility.
If I let my ego navigate a moment of need, it will lead me to the dead end of pride, as in “I’m too proud to ask for help.” But if I am humble enough to admit that “I can’t do this by myself,” it allows room for others to enter into the situation. We were made for relationships: to engage with and to interact with one another. When we humble ourselves, trust replaces pride and these relationships can become amazing conduits for compassion and community. It is our place to gratefully accept love in whatever form it takes and to allow ourselves to be helped.