About ten years ago, I said to my husband, “Ask people for help. People want to help you, and letting them is like giving them a gift.” He was at a professional crossroads and I simply wanted to support him. But I remember how those words came out, like I had channeled them from that deep pool of inner wisdom that rests within all of us but which can be so elusive most of the time. It was exactly the right thing to say at the time, and the advice was good advice. I’m a blurter and an oversharer and it’s unusual for me to say something profound and pithy and ineffably true without a lot of extraneous verbiage, and when that happens, it’s a thing of beauty.
But more than that, I remembered because I knew on some level that those words were meant for me as much as they were for him.
Asking for help means letting down your guard. It means admitting that you can’t do it all yourself. And—unlike giving an order or hiring someone to work for you—it means risking rejection. Gifts and friendship don’t come with a quid pro quo. You can talk about payback and divine retribution and favor banks all you like, but just because you’ve helped someone in the past doesn’t mean that you’re going to get it when you need it.
In spite of knowing this, I’ve spent my life collecting favors for a time uncertain, subbing yoga classes, cooking dinners for sick friends, donating time and money to causes that may or may not be important to me. And when it comes time to cash these favors in, I’m never sure whether I should take my payout or hoard them for when I REALLY need them. Once I lost my voice and spent hours dithering about whether I should look for a sub to teach a class when my doctor had told me to STOP TALKING SO MUCH.
As I write this, I’m sitting on a sofa that feels like it has a butt-shaped indentation. I’ve been here for days with my left foot raised because I had surgery on it last week. While I was still out, the doctor spoke to my husband. “She’s going to be trying to do all kinds of stuff she shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “You need to make sure she stays off her foot and takes her recovery seriously.” But the problem with staying off your foot is that you can’t do anything. You can’t tidy up the house or change your linens. You can’t go shopping or make dinner. You can’t go to the gym or teach yoga. Even making coffee involves a plan minimizing vertical, weight-bearing time. Pretty much the only thing you can do is sleep and watch TV and read and write and ask people for water and food and then crawl off to the bathroom before starting the whole thing over again. It’s boring and painful and although I know it’s going to be well worth it in a few weeks, it sucks right now. And the hardest part for me is being so dependent on my husband.
It would be so much easier if there was a system for this, wouldn’t it? Like S&H Green Stamps. Do you remember them? When you went grocery shopping, the cashier would give you a bunch of stamps along with your change and you would collect them and paste them into books and cash them in for prizes. I’d sit at the kitchen table with my mom and we’d lick the stamps and line them up carefully in the books and talk about what we were saving them for. My mom was never a big coupon clipper and I don’t know if she ever redeemed her Green Stamp books that I so meticulously tended, but it really wasn’t about the prize at the end of the day. It wasn’t even about the exchange itself—getting what you had earned or were entitled to. It was more about the sense of security that came with the process: I had done what I was supposed to do and when it was the right time, I would get what I needed.
If we could exchange favors like stamps, think about what it would mean. I could do what I needed to do on the front end so I’d feel okay asking for a favor without further obligation. I could even dictate the terms of the favor; whatever I needed done would be done properly, on my time frame, in accordance with my needs. The deal would be nice and tidy, without any loose ends, and I wouldn’t have to worry about any back story or anything I might owe down the road.
But friendship—and marriage is the sine qua non of friendship, right?—is not an economic transaction. It’s not a zero-sum game. Instead, if negotiated properly, it’s exactly the opposite: something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For it to work, not only must you have to be willing to give as much as you can, you must also be prepared to accept what the other person is offering. It might not be what you would have chosen at the Green Stamp Redemption Center. It might not be what you would have gotten if you had bought it in a store or paid someone to do it. It might not even look like help. But if you can see past your preconceived ideas of what you think you want and need and see the offering for what it is—an expression of love—you’ve allowed the relationship to grow simply by taking what is given freely and without expectation. And as messy and unreliable and scary as a relationship can be, it can also provide an entry to a magical place of selflessness and kindness and mutuality that a business transaction never will. You just have to be brave enough to let it happen.
I have a value-added identity. I don’t like to take without giving back. And in order for me to go deeper in my relationships, I need to let go of this green stamp mentality. If I allow people to help me without expecting anything in return, what will I get? What do I risk? I know in my head that the potential payoffs are huge, but can I get past my fear of being rejected? Of not being good enough? Of hearing the word “no” and not taking that to mean that I am not worthy?
Prior to surgery, I did as much as I could ahead of time. I cooked and froze meals. I did the laundry. I cleared my work schedule and paid my bills and weeded the garden, but now everything needs to be done again and in the meantime, my husband is still getting me water and sometime sI’m afraid to ask him for food because I’m worried that he’ll feel put upon and secretly judge me for not moving enough or for eating too much. I feel helpless and it doesn’t feel good. From what I can tell, I feel as though I’m not adding any value to my marriage or to my relationships.
I need to remind myself that if I want to add TRUE value, I need to give my friends and my husband the opportunity to help. When I’m self-sufficient, shrugging away offers of help with “I’m fine,” I’m doing both myself and my loved ones a disservice. By allowing them to help me, I can use this time to strengthen friendships as well as practice vulnerability. By asking for things, I can learn that “no” doesn’t mean “I don’t love you or value you.”
This is my work during this time. I am no longer a yoga teacher, a self-sufficient problem solver, a competent house manager. While I want to say that I am a lump of protoplasm taking up space, that is also not correct. I am no different from who I was when I was mobile; I am a stripped-down version who is coming to terms with how she defines herself and how she values herself. When I perceive that what I have to offer is valueless, am I still intrinsically worthy?
Relationships would be much easier if we could view them as economic transactions, like we did with our Green Stamps. If you collected enough empathy points, you’d be entitled to a homemade dinner or even some empathy in return. But reducing relationships eliminates that gorgeous mutuality of joy given and received when something is offered not from a sense of obligation but from asense of love and altruism. I’m really good at collecting that joy and gratitude when I give to people. Now is my time practicing how to receive another person’s love and help with that same joy and gratitude.