Monday, February 18, 2019

Why is it So Hard to "Ask For Help"?

"There is no shame in 'asking for help,'" we always say to one another. And we are sincere in this conviction. We know this should be true, and we are learning more and trying harder to respond with awareness of this truth.

And yet, so many people refuse to ask for help. There are lots of resources available that provide various forms of assistance to people who find themselves impoverished by physical and/or mental sufferings. But too often we don't ask.

Why does it seem so hard to ask? Certainly, it is humbling to be open about our needs, especially the ones that are easily concealed. But sometimes we hold back and keep things inside - hiding or denying even very desperate circumstances - because we have this feeling that there is no point to it, because people can't give us what we really need, what corresponds to the whole scope of ourselves and is mysteriously expressed in even the smallest individual needs. Indeed we feel fear that potential helpers will despise, abuse, or simply ignore us - that they will fail to perceive what is fundamental to us.

There is something authentic that underlies this feeling, even though it is too frequently misinterpreted as indicating the total futility of turning toward others or relying on them in any way. This can lead to an overall imprisonment in isolation, or to the proud or foolish refusal to seek any kind of help for our practical needs.

Nevertheless, what is genuine here is the sense (however obscure) that we are more profound than the quantitative sum of our particular needs. However sick, disabled, poor, or otherwise needy we may be, we are human persons - unique, worthy of respect, and with our own radical capacity to give and share a reality of immeasurable value which is our selves. In fact, the acts of "giving-and-receiving-help" take place in the realm of interpersonal relationships.

"Asking for help" is really hard, therefore, not only because of our pride, but also because we know that no one can ultimately "solve" our problem - we cannot be attended to, "fixed," and dispatched in such a way as to disregard or dismiss the (personal) preciousness and mysterious fragility of our selves as persons with our particular humanity. Our need for practical help is important, but it is not sufficient in human terms to just have our immediate practical needs taken care of without any experience of being engaged as persons.

There are reasons why people feel degraded by "depending on charity" and one of them is that they can feel reduced to mere objects of the energy and generosity of others. This is something distinct from a lack of gratitude for the help of others. Rather, it arises when other people use "the poor" as a means to feel satisfied with their own generosity (or their being "charitable"); when their "help" - though very real in meeting a momentary need - communicates a sense of superiority and justifies their distance from the persons of the poor, and their complacency with the exclusion of the poor "to the margins" of interpersonal participation in human society.

It is important to realize that the poor know (on some level) when they're being used. They take what is given to them, but often they harbor resentment toward their benefactors. They feel degraded and robbed of their dignity.

That is why "help" shouldn't just be "external" only (even when concrete physical needs are involved). Take a simple and obvious example: the need of the human person for food. Here we can see concrete ways to help people who lack food. Such people are obviously "poor," and we can take initiatives to help them even before they ask.

But is there the danger that such initiatives might fall short of being fully human?

We can feed the poor the way we feed a dog. We can even provide food with smiles and kind words, but it would still be like feeding our dogs if it is done without a vital awareness of our common humanity or the gifts and deeper burdens they have to share with us.

But the benefactor may be perplexed here. What else can be done?

It is not possible to reduce to a simple pragmatic formula or set of rules how to respond to the sufferings and the needs of another human person. The human need for food (an example which seems so quantifiable) is always the need of a human person - it is a physical need, but also a need for something more.

Hunger has a story, a personal story. It is linked to other difficult and tragic circumstances in the vocational journey of a human person. It bears the wounds of desperation, exclusion, failure, and - all too often - injustice.

These are overwhelming problems, and they are personal to each of "the poor." Clearly, we must help these persons with love. But how?

The art of being human is a continual learning process, and perhaps we feel we don't know how to love persons in need (or how to love this particular person in the context of the help we give them for this particular need). We can ladle out soup and distribute bread all day and still fall short in love! This does not mean we should give up this work or whatever other kinds of help we offer to people. Rather, it is already the beginning of something new when we realize the deep deficiency of our efforts to "do works of mercy." In this way, we begin to discover our own poverty.

It changes our perspective: we the "helpers" do not stand in any kind of personal superiority over the ones we help. The greatest need - to give and receive love - is something we all share.

For those of us rich in material things, skills, knowledge, energy, etc. this can be a surprising and humbling discovery. But this humility allows us to begin to see the person in need of help as a person humbled, a person like us.

Indeed, our needs and our sufferings are deeper than the reach of any projects or solutions. As persons we have to share one another's burdens - and that is hard for us in our culture to understand because it doesn't seem to yield a "product" that we can measure; it goes beyond the calculus of "results," and it is messy and awkward because it is interpersonal.

Sharing our gifts and burdens is the "stuff" of relationships; it builds unity between persons in freedom. It engenders solidarity and compassion. It is the source of authentic human community.

Community - in the full sense of persons-living-in-communion - is what we all desperately need.

But community is a reality that is lived, not a thing we can produce. Our best practical efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for community to exist and be sustained. Indeed, when people try to "make" community like a product, they inevitably make conflict. It turns into a constant fight over whose ideas about "how to do it" should be used. And that's the best case scenario; much worse is when a group or individual become dictators to whom everyone must conform.

Real human community is the hardest thing in the world. In front of this great need we are all profoundly poor. We must "ask for help" from a source greater than ourselves; a source that doesn't impose some degrading, reductive, mechanical solution that flattens us, but rather corresponds to the depths of each of us and all of us, a source that gives and empowers our freedom and enables us to grow.

Within this great seeking of the source of ourselves and our common humanity, we will begin to find more adequate ways of taking care of people in their particular needs. We will grow in wisdom.

If we want to build up an environment where people really do feel encouraged to "ask for help," there are many ways we need to grow as persons. Here we are looking at one of those ways. We are recognizing that we must grow in the capacity to be more open about our own suffering. This is not easy. But when we admit that acknowledging our fragility and our need for love is hard for us (and it is hard), we have already begun to open up our lives. We are learning about love and the suffering that love entails: both active loving and the openness to receive love from others. (The "suffering of love," when freely embraced, is called sacrifice. This is a fundamental mystery of life that we will consider more fully in another article.)

We are learning to help one another.

It is difficult for all of us to live this way, to live as persons in communion, to share one another's burdens. It takes patience and work, including patience with ourselves. This follows a path of "gradualness" - it is a complex human thing that grows "organically" (according to our growth in wisdom, not as the simple application of a technique or the imposition of an ideology). And, of course, it is something built up through respect for human dignity and freedom.

Finally, it is a life we receive from the One who is the source of our existence, our value as persons, and our aspiration to be together - the One we seek together, who is the source and fulfillment of everything. We must turn to Him to ask for help. He who is Love will form us in the ways of love.