“There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.”
M. Scott Peck
When I worked for many years in a hospital setting I would often encounter individuals facing the most overwhelming of circumstances and yet, most of them were resolute in their determination to “go it alone” and neither ask for nor accept support, especially from the larger community. There is a deep and abiding trait in our culture that one should be self-sufficient and handle life without appearing vulnerable, but this trait can be taken to the extreme and cause isolation, anxiety and destruction. When I encountered this “go it alone” attitude, almost always in the face of overwhelming hardship and distress, I would simply suggest that it might be the responsibility of the afflicted and/or their caregivers to provide a learning opportunity for their family and their community.
What if this hard time, your hard time, is the only opportunity your neighbor will be given to learn compassion and generosity? What if this is the moment when your child’s classmates can learn to be resourceful and kind? And what about your congregation being able to put faith into action? It happens to be what I deeply believe, that good can come from bad, that even the most bitter of situations will result in sweetness and personal growth for someone. The difficult truth is that we may not get to know where or when the good will occur in the midst of our own hard times, but that should not deter us from offering the lesson. So, how to begin to allow for some vulnerability and growth?
Consider these simple steps:
Practice saying the word “yes” when people ask if there is anything they can do for you. Just “yes” and then a pause to take note of the fact that the other party hasn’t hung up the phone or run screaming from the room leaving a giant person-sized hole in your wall.
After speaking “yes” aloud comes the hard part because you may have no idea what you actually need and again, it will feel awkward and unnatural to continue on with a list of things that would be helpful. This will get easier with time, just like push-ups. Concrete needs are far easier to speak aloud than emotional or supportive needs so keep a short list of some of the things that you have not had energy or time for during your crisis. Dry cleaner drop-off, fresh fruit from the market, gas cards, etc. Plus, it is very easy for people to complete a task, run an errand or make a meal and sometimes much harder for them to sit with you in the hospital, accompany you to church or talk with you about your fears and anxieties.
The next step is to pay attention. Pay attention to how good it feels to have a little help and pay attention to the faces and words of those who are helping. In the face of hardship you will see affection, accomplishment, serenity, kindness and strength. The people who have stepped forward to help will experience, many for the first time ever, the satisfaction of giving of themselves to another person and you may experience, for the first time ever, the gift and healing of accepting support from another. You need not do it all alone, all of the time.
Finally, welcome and forgive. Welcome the unexpected person who arrives to offer support and forgive the expected friend or family member who simply doesn’t show. We really have no idea what motivates or intimidates another person and the choice to welcome and forgive in equal measure will prevent unnecessary stress from consuming the resource that is our ability to cope with what is ahead. Sometimes people simply don’t know what to say or how to behave and other times they might be caught up in their own hardship and their own inability to ask for help. One never knows.
For many people, hard times do result in a mental health crisis and no matter how many people join in the struggle, feelings of anxiety and loneliness can swamp the vessel that is sailing toward solid ground. Part of the challenge of growing strong by accepting help may mean saying “yes” when someone says, “Do you think you should talk to somebody?”