Posted by: Nancy | June 23, 2011

On asking for help

I know of a poor family – lower-middle class, let’s say – that never asked for help. Not from the church or the government or friends or family.  Not when they were hungry, missing rent payments or sick.

It was partly out of pride and a sense of privacy. “It’s nobody’s business,” the matriarch would say. She’d decline to fill out the income questions on school forms and avoid letting others see the struggle. (Although, of course, they could still see.)

It also was partly a belief that asking for help was the same as admitting failure. The right thing to do was to soldier on and know that there are others even worse off than you. To prove it, it was important to always give to others, no matter what.

So it’s no surprise that the children in this family adopted that same belief structure.  They marched on, doing the best they could, while understanding that they also must help others. It was OK for others to ask for help, but not them – that’s where the pride came in.

For the most part, it worked out OK. The children all grew up to become modestly successful and mostly productive members of society.

Until one of them really, really needed help beyond what the family could provide.

Slowly and reluctantly, they broke the tradition. They took small steps to see about getting help from a local agency, affiliated with the state. They filled out forms. And more forms. They made appointments. They cautiously talked with the agency and government workers. Over time, they began to imagine letting others help them.

It started with very small steps. And it took a very long time (years) to even allow the smallest bits of support.

Looking in from the outside, I can understand the uncertainty, mistrust and shame they felt at asking for help. Asking for help is an admission of incapability, and it is difficult to hold onto anything like self-confidence or pride when you do so.

So it was an act of courage for them to ask for help.

I know it didn’t come easily; I know they are still quite tentative. They are learning how to behave in a new way, allowing others to see the condition of their lives – and participate in making it better.

I tell their story only because it seems worth noticing this component of the human condition. It may be an odd belief system, but it may be more prevalent than we notice.  And it seems timely as so many are struggling in this economy, in one way or another, perhaps with this same discomfort of learning how to behave differently.

Perhaps I can come to recognize this and to understand that although they may not ask for help, I should be mindful enough to offer.


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