Strength in Numbers

Allowing someone to help you is a curious experience. It is at once humbling, uplifting, and a surprisingly poignant bonding opportunity.

I am pretty sure I’m not alone in finding it very difficult to accept the help of others. For nearly two weeks I have been hobbling about on crutches, and reflexively saying “No thanks, I’m fine,” every time someone offers to help. Which is crazy, because there are some things that simply can’t be done on crutches – like carrying a cup of tea – and I work in a place where offers of help fall like snow in a blizzard. I love that I can’t lurch more than a few steps around my building without fending off half a dozen “is there something I can do?”s.

But there it is. I fend them off. I’ve written before about how accepting the help of others is good for everyone. It builds relationships and communities, and makes it easier for others to accept our help when they need it. It makes everyone feel better. There is no real downside. So I don’t understand why it can be so hard to say “thanks, if you could carry this bag for me it would be great!” or “I’d love a cup of tea.”

This week I’ve been making a conscious effort to accept more of those offers. Generally they are a minor effort on the part of the helper, and a great relief to me – like a student carrying printouts to class for me, or a colleague getting my lunch out of the microwave and bringing it over to the table. It has made life a lot easier, which is a fine thing when life is stressful both from crutches and wanting to claw my skin off as a result of a massive allergic reaction.

And praise will come to those whose kindness
leaves you without debt
and bends the shape of things to come
that haven’t happened yet
Neil Finn – Faster than Light
 

But why should it be such an effort? Why are we so determined to be independent and pretend to be invulnerable? Last night I offered help to a friend who will shortly need it, and she listed all the reasons why she wouldn’t really need help. She was prepared, she would be fine. And I have no doubt that she will be. But if I can push past the “I’m fines” and actually do something for her, it will help us both, build on our friendship, and make us feel a little more supported and a little more connected.

Recently a friend called and asked if we could take her kids to gym so that she could do kinder duty with her youngest, and I was thrilled. I frequently offer to do this kind of thing, as Andrew and I are lucky to be able to arrange our schedules so that there is always one of us available to do the school pick up and the drop off. But it’s rare that anyone takes us up on it. So it was delightful to feel that sense of connection and trust that comes with being able to do something for someone else. I have no doubt she would return the favour in an instant if we needed it and she was able to.

I think we place too much weight on being able to cope alone. We drive to and from work one person to a car, despite the environmental and social benefits of car pooling, because we don’t want to be a burden on anyone else, or to wait for anyone else. We become increasingly inflexible the more we do things alone. We build high fences and rarely speak to our neighbours. We don’t stop and chat to people in the street, because we are always hurtling down it in steel boxes with stereos blaring. On those rare instances we are out and about we have headphones in, discouraging interaction with the world and taking us out of the present moment.

We are a fundamentally social species. So many of our physiological responses are geared towards human interaction. We get oxytocin boosts from touch or even a shared smile that calm us and make us feel happier and more connected. And yet we constantly drive ourselves to stand apart, be independent, and cope alone, as though there will be prizes at our funerals for how little we leant on anyone else.

Which is sad, because I am pretty sure our funerals are delayed – just a little – every time we accept someone’s help.

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