Help Is A 2-Way Street
You know those scenes in movies where someone is hanging off a cliff? They’re always the same… the protagonist has been flung over a ledge by some evil doer in the 3rd act. They catch themselves, but one hand slips and they’re suddenly hanging over the precipice of certain death by a single hand. Suspense builds. The music is chaotic and tense. They throw their free hand up to try to grab hold again, and, surprise! They actually grab another character’s outstretched hand. Crucial help arrives in the nick of time! Maybe it’s someone who abandoned our protagonist in a prior scene and decided to come back. Maybe it’s someone who got lost in the fray of the fight scene. Whoever it is, we usually love them and feel satisfied at their well-timed return. We know our guy/gal is safe with them and the villain doesn’t stand a chance anymore.
And that’s how “help” works in Hollywood films and our subconscious mind…like secondary heroes swooping in when all hope might be lost.
But that’s not how “help” really works, does it? Nobody really gets saved cleanly, without some kind of collaborative effort. In real life, if I’m hanging off a cliff, when my friend arrives to save me in record time, the real work begins. Real human beings can’t necessarily just bend down and pick up someone hanging there without a few things worked out… how will they make sure their feet stay planted and don’t slide? How will they balance their body weight and where is the firmest grasp on you they can manage without, themselves, being in danger of falling down the precipice? Even someone bigger and stronger than me would probably need to walk me through what was going to happen:
“OK. When you’re ready, let your feet come in to the cliff side, pull up with both hands and swing whichever hand feels freer up to me. I’ll grab it with both hands and yank you up. Trust me and let your core swing upward! Now, which hand do you wanna throw?”
Great effort, but maybe I’m not that enthused about this plan! Knowing my own strength and grip, maybe I don’t believe it could work:
“No!” (Dramatically) “It’s not gonna work! Both my hands are slipping!”
Made up friend (let’s say they look like, oh I don’t know, Michael B Jordan): “Just trust me. I got you no matter what. You don’t have to thrust—just slowly crawl one hand up to me.”
Me (timidly but resolved) “OK… I think I can do the left one.”
MBJ: “OK, take your time. I got you. I’m gonna sit down so I keep my body weight on this side and pull you up over me.” (Hot, and probably safer too).
Maybe even that isn’t enough… maybe we need a third guy/gal to help pull me up! Probably it’s clumsy and I bust open a knee or retain whiplash. Look, the point is, help is collaborative. It takes communication: equal parts listening and reassuring. It takes agreement. It involves the choice to trust.
Offering and accepting help isn’t as simple as an old Hollywood trope. I wanted to help the underserved in my community during quarantine and I thought it would be simpler than it was. Actually, Meals on Wheels was booked up and put me on a waitlist 4 weeks ago (still haven’t heard from them). The San Fernando Valley Food Bank also said they had plenty of good, experienced folks on their team. Donating funds and just being open to people I crossed paths with who I could help in the moment seemed to be the best options. So I bought food and water and hand sanitizer for two homeless people on my block. They both asked for cokes on separate days in separate places, and on both occasions I took it upon myself to sell them on something less sugary and addictive. Did I feel like I had done my fair share of “helping”? Not really, to be honest. Because real help takes grassroots research and long term goal setting. Real help takes figuring out what you have to offer and how to get it to the people who need it. Real help isn’t a clearcut “you’ve been saved!” It’s ongoing and evolving.
With all that in mind, in what ways do you, yourself, need help (because, let’s face it, we all do)? In what ways are you too afraid or stubborn to accept help or help yourself? Maybe you’re like me and you have both a stubborn side that wants to do it all on her own, and a whiny side that feels unworthy of help in the first place. Maybe you only begrudgingly accept help, in a performance I like to call “wanting something but acting like I don’t”. Maybe you feel guilty, like a million people deserve help before you do… the list could go on, and I would probably resonate with all of it.
Here’s the thing. We all need help: basic, chill help, physically moving things around or getting the dishes done or folding the sheets; help seeing the world from outside our own egos; help becoming better versions of ourselves; help reaching bigger goals in our career; help staying sane when the world is anything but. And… we don’t have to make it so hard for other people to help us. We can put a little more trust into the world and surrender to the help in our lives. We can recognize the excuses we make to avoid help in its many forms, including hard, ongoing lessons, difficult (often shame-riddled) conversations, and all the things that make us feel vulnerable. Every time I give in to the help I need, I feel relieved. Revived. And every time I come out on the other side of help, I see my initial stubbornness as less and less necessary, and I sit in gratitude and trust a lot more of the time.
Help isn’t a one way street either, is it? The volunteer receives their own sense of deep gratitude and enlightenment simply talking with bright, underprivileged kids, or lonely, headstrong veterans, or spirited inmates. The good neighbor takes pride and joy in their better deeds. The friend or family member who never gave up even when you were incredibly stubborn learns something valuable about their own challenges and strengths, and ways to balance helping others with helping themselves. Even the people we perceive as our enemies help us see our innate worth, and motivate us to do better. Help doesn’t really work when forced, and being so bold as to genuinely ask for help can be an act of true heroism.