Why Are We So Afraid To Ask For Help?

What is so wrong with admitting we can’t do everything on our own?

The word “help” is recorded in the late 14th century as a cry of distress, and over the next hundred years grew wider and more generous, to include any form of assistance: “to offer support, succor; to benefit, do good to; cure, amend.”

I like to think of help as a table groaning with possibility and molten chocolate cake. It is always there. The thing is, we don’t always notice this table. It stands in the shadows. The scent of chocolate is wafting, and we shut the door. We have a story that we shouldn’t need it, or should cope just fine without it. Why, I am not sure.

If we can agree that human beings are by nature incomplete, does not this incompleteness ideally suit them for help?

I am not religious. I am a pragmatist with Buddhist leanings. And the Buddhists say that Hell is a bunch of hungry people standing by a banquet table heaped with delicious food with their hands tied behind their backs, and Heaven is the same crowd of people at the same table in the same fix who have somehow managed to feed each other, which sounds magnificent. Sign me up for heaven.

As a rule we don’t like asking for help. Am I right? We don’t like it—and forgive me for invoking this dreary fact—like we don’t like dying. We cling to the idea that each of us is captain of a tiny, inconsequential boat afloat on a great ocean, buffeted by the cruelest waves. Even though help—if it arrived—would be sweet.

So I get curious:

If we placed “needing help” on the same plane as needing food, water, sex, or love, then could we without wincing, without apology, bring ourselves to ask for and receive help with dignity, ease, even pleasure—and offer it in return, as a matter of course? I am not talking about help from God, which is another thing entirely and a request most likely to surface when one has lost faith in human beings.

If this were our paradigm, there would be no shame in asking for help, nor in offering it to oneself.

But it doesn’t seem to be. There seems to be a certain perfume of awkwardness that hovers over us when sensing we may need help, and seeking it.

If one watches life unfurl with gentle detachment, one will notice that asking for help is a skill some people have honed more than others. The people who know how to ask for help directly are the lucky ones, the gifted ones, who live in quiet contentment or ascend to positions of leadership. It would behoove us to learn from them. The rest of us tend to squirm. We know we need help, and we try to hide it.  

Out of this denial we acquire a signature style. Some of us—when feeling weary or sadistic—ask in a roundabout fashion meant to induce guilt, (“do I have to be the only one to clean the kitchen?”); some ask some mournfully, some ask playfully and with an offer in hand, and many—far too many—ask knowing the request will be denied and believing they have nothing to offer in return, and that is a dreadful place to stand. Begging—with despair—is a poverty of skill. And robbing is a contemptuous leap out of human society: seizing help without any plea.

If we wish to avail ourselves of help there are many forms, each with its own set of rules. There is professional help, and amateur help. There are favors, and there is trade. Each has a price, and some prices are buried. You may think you are fortunate to find help at no cost, but usually there is some tacit requirement and it is better to know what that may be than to assume it will be nothing. As the anthropologist Marcel Mauss once famously said: “The gift has teeth.” But then again, sometimes we like the teeth. The teeth keep us together.

There is the kind of help one gives oneself: like a nap, or a bath, or a good cry.

And then the most elemental example occurs to me.

As long as we are parsing the notion of help, let’s talk about babies, who make helplessness adorable. They get to nap, and eat, and cry, and are not expected to remember anything. And really, should babies have it all?

I think we envy them.

If we each thought of ourselves now and then as a baby, would we expect so much?

If we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, would we crave as much assurance?

Babies are about themselves. We forgive them their self-absorption, mercurial tempers and never-ending prattle because they are so darling, and when they ask for help they are not faking it. But there is more than a streak of envy in this indulgence. I am inviting us to admit that sometimes, we would rather be in a cozy bed by a warm fire, being spoon-fed by someone we adore than carrying a heavy bag of groceries up a flight of icy stairs; and that we fervently wish to be understood even when — with all of language at our disposal—we do not understand ourselves. If we could feel we deserve such sweetness as this, it would be a start.

It might be the start of heaven.

We would not have to pretend we know everything, and suffer because we don’t.

Underlying this fragile bit of theater is the pretense that one should be complete as a sovereign country, lacking nothing; and that the pretense is so valuable as to be upheld in the face of absurdity. A baby would know this, and send up sweet gales of laughter at us. Half asleep in the crib with one eye open, a baby would see that I am in no position to govern the country, remove my own appendix, or drill for my own oil. A baby would think me wise for choosing not to butcher my own chickens, cut my own hair, or supply my own electricity. And a baby would point out I do not have to be the only one to kiss, comfort, or embrace myself, celebrate my birthday, carve the chicken, pour the wine, fold the laundry and carry in the groceries. A baby would remind me it is a sensible idea to find someone to defend me in court, teach me how to forgive my mother, set my broken arm, and deliver wood for the fire in winter.

It is the in-between that is difficult: the instances in which it is not clear I should need help, and stumble over skills I don’t possess but secretly believe every adult but me—and certainly the people who write in to my alumni magazine—has mastered with grace and adeptness. Managing children, time, money and promises, keeping the basement tidy, cleaning the garage, and yes, even balancing a checkbook, are areas where I have difficulty asking for help. I want to preserve the illusion that as an adult and a parent 15 years into the office, I have the requisite know-how. Otherwise, how could I dare hold this rank? It is in the realms I think of as primary that I suffer when asking for help, as I imagine a person would who pretended to read admits he cannot read, and wishes at last to learn.

Then I begin to speculate that maybe what we wish to conserve is not worth conserving. What may be better to conserve is our vulnerability, which leads us to reach out to one another.

The more I consider this possibility, the more I am in love with life. I will revisit the banquet table, where the molten chocolate cake is and other wonders are beckoning, and bring a spoon.

Michele Gazzolo is a mother and writer living in southwest Michigan. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times Parent-lode blog, the Yale Journal of Medicine and the Humanities, and most often on her own blog, girlwalksin: http://girlwalksin.wordpress.com/

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