I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been visiting with someone, sitting down with them in their home or at their bedside, and after a while they say to me: I didn’t want to admit that I needed help. Usually the person will cast their eyes down for a time and it can be a little while before they make eye contact with me again. Their hands might fiddle with a blanket or with a cup of tea.
Usually, they say, I’m the one who gives rides to people or cooks them a meal. I’m the one who helps with the kids or visits people when they’re in the hospital. I’m not used to being on the receiving end. I’m not used to having to ask for help.
It can be difficult to receive. Years ago I lost the apartment I was living in—and a lot of my stuff—to a fire. It was a traumatic experience. And one of the things that was most difficult to deal with was the generosity of people. The Red Cross gave me money for clothes. Friends gave me dishes and silverware and bath towels. Friends also held a benefit concert to raise money for me so I could replace some of what I lost—a computer, a microwave. Friends filled the stage and the seats.
At the end of the night, after the concert, a friend put in my hand an envelope with cash and some checks. I went off and sat on a corner of the now-empty stage and opened it, and I couldn’t hold back tears. It is difficult to receive.
But even more difficult than receiving, I think, is the actual asking. “I am in need. I am in trouble. I could really use some help.” I don’t know many people who can really do that at all easily.
We resist asking. Lots of our resistance comes from shame. The musician and professional “asker” Amanda Palmer notes in her book The Art of Asking that:
Women tend to feel shame around the idea of being “never enough”: at home, at work, in bed. Never pretty enough, never smart enough, never thin enough, never good enough. Men tend to feel shame around the fear of being perceived as weak….
Both sexes get trapped in the same box, for different reasons.
If I ask for help, I am not enough.
If I ask for help, I am weak.
It’s no wonder so many of us just don’t bother to ask. It’s too painful.
But none of us gets through this life alone. A colleague of mine, Emily Hartlief, posted on Facebook that this is what being a new mother is teaching her. She says:
I left home when I was seventeen years old… I studied, I worked, I traveled, I moved ahead professionally. My mom and dad offered me emotional and financial support at every turn. Sometimes I accepted, and sometimes I did not.
I wanted to do it all on my own terms. I married. And then we had a child. Since then, I have had to ask for and accept more help than I ever imagined.
Emily asked for and has received all kinds of help from all kinds of family and friends. Help with cleaning and with food, help with baby clothes, and help with remembering to take care of herself, too. Emily says, “Mothering is not a solo act.”
You might have a story similar to this. And we all know the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There are plenty of stories about being really reluctant to ask for help but then finally, somehow managing to ask—and the help comes.
But the place in all this that interests me the most is that moment of asking. It’s easy for me to understand how I’m receiving a gift when my friends have given me a place to stay, or when my dad gave me his overcoat. I’m wondering if there might be a gift in the asking itself.
I’m intrigued by how Amanda Palmer describes what it means to ask. She says, “Asking is, at its core, a collaboration.” She describes a kind of thought-experiment: Imagine there is a surgeon working away and then something happens, “an unexpected bump in the process,” and the surgeon needs to ask the person next to her for something important, and she needs to do this quickly. Palmer notes that the surgeon doesn’t have any time for questions like:
Do I deserve to ask for this help?
Is this person I’m asking really trustworthy?
Am I [pretentious and insulting] for having the power to ask in this moment?
She simply accepts her position, Palmer writes, asks without shame, gets the right scalpel, and keeps cutting. Something larger is at stake. This holds true for firefighters, airline pilots and lifeguards, but it also holds true for artists, scientists, teachers—for anyone, in any relationship.
Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with—rather than in competition with—the world. Palmer describes three different kinds of asking:
Asking for help with shame says:
You have the power over me.
Asking with condescension says:
I have power over you.
But asking for help with gratitude says:
We have the power to help each other.
Asking with gratitude is a way of building mutual relationship. Asking with honesty is an opportunity to see what we can create together. The gift is in the asking.
I ran across a story on medium.com that seemed to be another example of how the gift is in the asking. Morgan Roe, a survivor of sexual assault, is now mother of a daughter who is almost five years old. Roe says, “Once my daughter became old enough to understand and respond to questions, I began asking for permission to touch her. May I touch your face? May I touch your arm?” She asks her daughter’s permission when she is bathing her or playing a game of This Little Piggy. Sometimes the answer her daughter gives is a “No,” and she respects that.
Now her daughter asks her: “Mama, why do you ask all the time?” She says, “I ask because your body is yours, and yours alone. You get to choose who is able to see it and touch it. If you don’t want someone to touch your body, all you will have to do is say no. They have to listen… even if you give me permission once and then later change your mind, I have to listen.” The daughter says: “Because my body is MINE?” “Exactly.”
The gift is in the asking.
This idea that the gift is in the asking got me thinking about Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal, and what he says about the importance of having discussions about end-of-life preferences. As Gawande says, “People who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.” As hard as it is to ask, the gift is in the asking.
Gawande tells a story about a palliative care specialist named Susan Block. Even for her, when it came to her own father, it was hard to ask the questions she needed to ask. Her father faced neurosurgery. The night before the operation, she and her father “chatted about friends and family, trying to keep their minds off what was to come, and
then she left for the night.” On her way home, she says, “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what he really wants.’” And so she turned around and went back.
Block has a list of questions that she asks her patients and she had to turn around and go back to ask them of her dad:
- What do you understand the prognosis, the likely course, of this
disease, to be?
- What are your worries or concerns about what lies ahead?
- What trade-offs are you willing to make?
- How do you want to spend your time if your health gets worse?
- Who do you want to make decisions if you can’t?
Block says she told her father:
“I need to understand how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you.” We had this quite agonizing conversation where he said… “Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.”
And it was a good thing she’d had that conversation, because there were complications with the surgery, in the middle of which doctors came out to ask her what to do. “She asked the surgeons whether, if her father survived, he would still be able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV. ‘Yes,’ they said. She gave the okay to take him back to the operating room.”
Susan Block’s father lived for two more years after that—quite productive years, actually. Years that he might not have had if she hadn’t known clearly what would qualify as livable for him.
The gift is in the asking. Author Gawande refers to a 2010 study at Massachusetts General Hospital:
Those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25 percent longer….
If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.
If we are brave enough to be vulnerable, the gift is in the asking. If we can ask from a place of gratitude, the gift is in the asking. If we have the courage to live a question without controlling the answer, the gift is in the asking. If we can ask our loved ones hard questions about what they fear and what they really want, the gift is in the asking.
Joe graduated from Andover Newton Theological School in May 2012 and was ordained by the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse on May 26, 2013. He served as a chaplain at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and completed his ministerial internship at the First Parish in Bedford, MA. He then served as Interim Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Michigan.
Music is a large part of Joe’s life. He is an avid banjo and guitar player and sees music as one of many ways to explore life’s questions and create a deeper sense of community. Music plays an important role in Joe’s services at UUCSS and is a means by which he connects with the larger community. Joe is also fascinated by science (he began college as a physics major) and poetry.
Before becoming a minister, Joe studied literature and literary theory at Syracuse University and taught writing and literature at several colleges. In 2000 he founded the nonprofit organization The Folkus Project to bring folk and acoustic music to the Syracuse, NY, community.