I was in my second year of seminary when I learned how to pray. It wasn’t in a class, or a field placement – technically I learned prayer in those official places. But the real lesson happened at home. One night.
My children were about 3 and 10 months.
My partner was away for work, and entirely inaccessible even for a consult. Which meant: I was on my own, with my kids, and with a sermon that needed to be done by Sunday.
But I had a plan – the kids would go to sleep at their usual early bedtime, and I would write and everything would be fine.
The evening started out promising. I put Josef to bed first, no problem. Then Gracie, also smooth.
She was almost asleep when she called out – mama, I sick.
I ran in, and saw that she’d thrown up, everywhere.
Before I could even figure out how to respond – Josef was crying, loud and insistent, from the other room.
I ran to him, he hadn’t thrown up – thank God – but he was crying hard.
I went back to Grace and started cleaning up. She was crying then too.
I got her cleaned up, they were both wailing.
I grabbed each of them under an arm, and brought them upstairs, where I sat down, and felt – nauseous.
And completely overwhelmed. Scared. I started crying too.
And right then I heard myself say, “Help.”
It was quiet at first…. “help.”
The second time it got a little louder “Help!” and the third time, it was louder but also more polite – “Please, HELP. I need HELP.”
We’d been talking about prayer in my spiritual direction. I’d confessed I still didn’t really get it. I always got stuck on the address part. Like, to whom it may concern?
But in that moment I couldn’t care less about the who. All that mattered was the need I had for real help. All that mattered was the word coming out of my mouth. Letting myself know: it was true. I couldn’t do this on my own.
I cried for a while. Finally I called a friend, a mom with slightly older kids, she talked me through it. Eventually, the kids passed out, and the sermon got done. And Sunday came as, I’ve learned, it always does.
Like a majority of folks in the US, asking for help makes me – uncomfortable. And that’s even assuming I know I need help. Which a lot of times, I don’t. At least, not until it’s way late in the game – like, two little kids sick and crying and a sermon to write kind of late in the game.
It’s hilarious really. That this thing that we all need, this thing we are hard wired for – as stewardship consultant Mark Ewert says “we are all joined in a common neediness” –even still, we are so bad at it – so often.
We end up in these totally absurd situations, trying to prove to ourselves that we can do it on our own. While being helpful – as in, giving someone else help – is a source of pride, or honor – receiving help often comes with feelings of embarrassment, even shame.
These feelings often go back to deep messages we hold, especially from our childhood. Think about the messages your family gave you about asking for help. Not just verbal, but in the way you lived.
Were you the sort of family that prized “doing things yourself? Or, letting others in?” (See this article for more info)
In my family, for example, we volunteered at a second hand store, folding and sorting – but we didn’t shop there.
Even though we probably should have. We could have. But we didn’t. That’s a message.
We learned we might have needs, but others were needier. Our problems, our needs – weren’t that big of a deal, not compared to others’. And our small needs, they’d somehow, just take care of themselves….we’d take care of ourselves.
We were help-givers, not help-receivers.
A lot of us got messages like this growing up – messages that prize self-reliance, and independence. Messages reinforced across our whole lives. It’s the water we swim in, in the US – this deep story where independence and self-sufficiency are the ideals.
So that even if we do need help, we don’t want help. Help means feeling feelings we don’t want to feel, after all. Needing things and people in ways we don’t want to need. Even when it seems obvious we should seek help…Or maybe, even more, asking for help means we’d have to know what we need – what would be “helpful.”
But so often in our neediest moments, we don’t know. We’re flooded instead by the struggle, the emotions. Even help that might be helpful later just feels overwhelming, imposing.
Help means acknowledging all the places we don’t have it together. Our weaknesses, our inadequacies, even our incompetence. Mostly, it means acknowledging our limits.
Help is vulnerable. Which for women is plenty difficult. But it’s usually even more difficult for men. Vulnerability challenges some of the fundamental things our culture teaches us about masculinity. What it means to be a man.
As Brene Brown talks about this tightrope that men walk. “Where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.”
Even though, as Brene Brown’s research has shown, vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, of belonging – there’s no pathway to courage without it. Musician Amanda Palmer gets to the heart of these complications in vulnerability in her 2014 TED Talk, the art of asking. Before she was able to make a living playing music, Palmer was a street performer. “The 8-foot bride.”
She’d put out a can and then freeze in place until a random stranger would come by and help her out.
This is a really important moment, in our core messages about help.
The moment after we’ve asked for help. As in, did help come? In your growing up stories, does help come? From where, and how? And what were you taught about how to respond?
In this sort of moment, we learn early, and then over and again, how reliable people are, or aren’t, in meeting our needs. We learn to believe that help is available, or that it is not. We learn to trust, or to fear; to hope and heal, or to hide, and protect.
We are often taught to say thank you, no matter what is being offered our way, even if it is not all that helpful, or needed. Less often we’re taught how to be open enough so that people know the actual needs we have. What helpful would even mean.
We learn rarely how to open ourselves to the opportunity that receiving gives us for connection we rarely learn how to be close to another, which is the main opportunity that receiving help gives us.
It was this opportunity that Palmer learned to embrace as a street performer. When those random strangers would give her money, she would respond by offering them a flower, and then, she’d hold eye contact.
And she says, “we would sort of fall in love a little bit…” She saw them. And in their return gaze, they would tell her, thank you. Nobody ever sees me.
It became really unclear then, who was the giver, who was the receiver – who was helping whom.
Eventually, Palmer’s music took off enough that she stopped being the 8-foot bride.
But she realized she missed the direct connection she’d had with people. So, after all her shows, she’d meet with her fans, and make that same connection. There, she “made an art out of asking people to help” her. Eventually this after-show connection transferred to twitter, where she regularly asked for help, and they’d respond…
She needed a piano to practice on. Done.
Home cooked food. All the time. Done.
Most of all, places to stay while touring. Done.
One time, she and her crew showed up to a Miami home where their host was an 18-year-old girl, and her family – all undocumented immigrants.
That night, her whole family took the couches, while Palmer and her crew were in beds.
As Palmer says, “I lay there thinking, these people have so little. Is this fair?
“In the morning, her mom took [Palmer} aside and she said to [her] in broken English, ‘Your music has helped my daughter so much. Thank you for staying here. We’re all so grateful.”
And I thought, this is fair. This is this.’ (Flower, eye contact)
Eventually, her band signed with a label and their album sold 25,000 copies – and the label considered it a failure.
At that same time, a guy came up to Palmer after a show and handed her $10 because he’d burned one of her CDs off his friend.
In this moment, everything came together for her. She decided to give away her music for free from then on. And…she decided to ask for help from her community to make that possible. Help so she could keep making music.
She set a goal of $100,000. She ended up with $1.2 million. All from about 25,000 people.
It was an incredibly vulnerable thing to do – risky. But that’s not how she thought about it.
“I don’t see [it] as risk.” She says, “I see [it] as trust.
Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. When you connect with them, people want to help you. When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”
As with a lot of things in the US today, it’s fair to blame the Puritans for our struggles around help.
Their messages about hard work, sacrifice, and even suffering being indicators of worth have infiltrated the foundations of our country, and shaped the foundations of Unitarian Universalism.
So much that if there isn’t struggle, or even pain involved, maybe we don’t deserve whatever it is we’re hoping for.
Despite a sense among us that – maybe this is not the whole story, this ideal is still perpetuated in so many ways in our culture today.
This is just one of the thousands of images that were posted on Instagram with #blessed just this past Friday.
Vast googling reveals that #blessed was first used in about 2011 as a way for posters to acknowledge blessings they felt in their life. Blessings, particularly from God.
It quickly became one of the most popular hashtags, so that now you can even find it printed on clothing.
Not only is your photo evidence of your #blessed, but just look at your whole life. #blessed.
Anyone ever posted something using the #Blessed? Or maybe you thought about it, but didn’t?
Maybe because you knew that over the past few years, this hashtag has become, as one writer put it, “one of the most annoying hashtags on the internet.”
“Calling something ‘blessed’ (this is a quote from the New York Times) has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy.”
Instead of acknowledging the gifts you’ve received – that is the help we’ve received – #blessed has become a way to say – look at how amazing I am, how successful.
How good I have it.
How much you wish you were me.
How great our lives are, and so how little help we actually need.
OK, I didn’t use the hashtag, but in some ways, it doesn’t matter.
A lot of social media works in the same way.
Look at my amazing life. How cute my family is. How we have it all together.
This photo was taken last July.
We were in Glenwood Springs, at the adventure park at the top of the mountain – which is amazing, no doubt.
We had just arrived at the park, after a long, hot drive from the town where we were staying. It should’ve been a two-hour drive, but it was more like five, because construction.
We were not our best selves on that drive – my family.
We had to play the quiet game at least twice.
But you don’t see that in the photo.
You don’t see our frustration, or the anxiety that grew as we realized it was possible we wouldn’t make it.
And you don’t see the café we stopped at along the way where the owners had just baked fresh bread, and how the smell and its warmth was just the comfort the kids needed to trust that maybe this was enough.
A few months before this photo, our dog had to have really expensive surgery. The photo also does not show the vet bills, or the credit card interest rates, and the stress Carri and I felt trying to figure out how we would manage it all. Up until a few weeks before this, we were pretty sure we couldn’t afford this trip at all. Until one of my friends offered that we could stay with her, the whole week.
The photo doesn’t show her either. Or the reality that we would’ve never been able to go on vacation without her help.
Actually our dog had surgery twice. He didn’t heal right; they did it over.
And the vet took responsibility – absorbed the second surgery cost – even though maybe we just didn’t do a great job with the post-recovery instructions. The photo doesn’t show it, but definitely, if not for our vet’s help, we’d never have been there either.
There’s a whole web of people this photo doesn’t show. A whole web of help that made this moment possible – by which I mean – a whole web of need. Behind this “blessed,” there’s actually a mess. Our mess. Our need.
And that’s how it always is.
The picture at the end, the life that looks “amazing,” that’s not actually not the blessing.
The blessing is the path that came before, the help that came, in response to that mess, and the courage to receive. Every #Blessed life is born first in our common neediness – and then the help that rose to meet that need.
Mark Nepo says, “on the surface, giving and receiving are about exchanges. I need. You give. I feel grateful. You feel good about yourself. I feel indebted. I give back. We take turns. But below the surface of things, giving and receiving become indistinguishable – [Just like in Amanda Palmer’s street performance] The aim is not to simply move things from one person to another, but to keep the gift of life flowing. The pulse of being alive moves like blood circulating in the body, and giving and receiving like arteries and veins, are both necessary.”
Amanda Palmer didn’t just go to her fans for places to stay. She also went to them for a literal place to land. Couch surfing, and crowd surfing, are basically the same thing, she says. You fall into the hands of others, and you trust them.
Which is what all help is, really. Help is about trust. And connection. It’s about belonging. In the asking, and receiving, and in the offering. In the place where all of these meet, help is the falling into each other, and letting the gift of life freely flowing.
“We need to face each other.” Palmer says. “We need to give and receive fearlessly…to ask for help, without shame.”
We must come to see, and to say – whether clumsily and awkwardly, or boldly and courageously – Help. Please, Help.
And then we need to stay put, and receive, generously. Knowing, that in our common neediness, in the mess of it all, we are for real #blessed.