If a toddler is attempting to button his/her shirt and is having having fumbling finger problems, asking them if they need any help, ‘Can Mommy help you.”, is likely to elicit a strong “I do it myself!”. If you are in a hurry to get out the door with said toddler in tow, this expression of competence may cause impatience, but generally we encourage children to learn how to do things for themselves. Independence and competence are traits we teach our children and we expect from adults. Our expectations of others and of ourselves are often based on our judgement of competency. “Don”t you know how to do ___? Have you been living under a rock? She acts so helpless, she needs to grow up.” But as we humans often do, we may have gone too far in promoting and valuing independence. After all how do we “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”? Is that even possible?
I fell on my stairs yesterday morning. I think I tripped on my bootstraps! I realized I forgot something and turned to go back down the steps and slipped and landed hard on my right side. Luckily it was only a couple of steps, my injuries were minor, but my vulnerability meter went off the charts. What if I was really hurt and had to crawl up the stairs to my phone? Or lay there and do the ‘Help I can’t get up.” T.V. commercial. I was safe, but I’m older and weaker and not naive enough to believe I will always be able to take care of myself. All’s well that ends well right? I survive a natural disaster, or fight off an attacker or heal from a serious illness and I am a poster child for self-reliance. Or am I? What about PTSD? The “getting through” a traumatic event often leaves invisible wounds that need to be healed. Can I heal myself too? Even though our first inclination may be to withdraw or isolate, it is necessary to connect with others to heal. We all need validation from others to help us process our emotions.
Children need to depend on their parents to get their needs met, then they can grow up with a sense of security and eventually grow in independence. Solitary confinement is the most punishing kind of imprisonment, being alone without human interaction can cause prisoners to become psychotic. We need others to be our mirrors, to see ourselves as human beings, others to push against to know we are real. Hearing ‘Help me!”reaches into our heart, our compassionate awareness, and we go towards the voice we hear. There is this sense that helping others is helping ourselves. As John Dunne said, “Never ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Remember the iconic movie scenes where the hero or heroine asks “Who’s with me?” and one hand slowly comes up, and another, then quickly everyone puts their hands up. Cue the stirring music. We need our tribe.
Whether we’re referring to a cake, a carpentry project or a complex computer hard drive, there is satisfaction in being able to say: “I made it myself.” Still we had to count on other people to make the materials and supplies we needed to make our personal creation. Our biggest creation is our lives, all the moments between birth and death. We will not survive if there is no one to care for us as an infant and small child, and as we age we may need others to care for us to have a good quality of life. What does aging gracefully mean? I think it may mean that as we age we need to be a realist, recognize our assets and deficits, and live within those limits. If we need help to move a piece of furniture we can ask for help, and if we have learned how to organize a meeting, care for others, or make everyone’s favorite dessert we can share that. Giving help and receiving help are really the flip sides of the coin of inter-dependence. Quality alone time is important, but it is in the gathering and coming together with others where we find our purpose and become our best selves.