Do you remember the last time you were in a real bind, in a very desperate situation? How did you handle that moment? Did you ask for help, or did you try to figure it out for yourself? Most likely, you tried to work it out alone. Humans have a tendency to do that, don’t we? Even though it feels so good to help another person, asking for help sometimes feels uncomfortable. We enjoy helping others when we feel inspired to call, write a note, pray, deliver a meal, or simply be a listening ear. There is a release of positive energy when we help someone. It makes us feel so good about ourselves. Yet we resist when the help is going the other direction. When you didn’t ask for help, did you ever reflect upon why you kept the problem to yourself? One member of our congregation remarked to me recently that we do not ask for help because we realize how busy our own schedules are, and we just don’t want to bother another person. It was almost as if it was a politeness issue. We don’t want to intrude on their schedules and ask for their time. Yet when we offer our time, it feels different-it is just not the same as asking for help. Why for many people does help seem to be a one way street?
Everyone knows the age-old joke that men do not like to ask directions. Recently my brother visited and once again proved it true. He had just returned from Japan and took my car to run an errand. I gave him the GPS system so he would not get lost. After his errand he pushed the “home” icon on the system, but I had not programmed in my home address so he was led to an industrial park far away. “Why didn’t you just ask directions?” He didn’t know.
Men are notorious for putting heads in the sand and hoping that their problem blows over. Whether it is a financial problem, a relationship problem, or a health problem, men would rather wait and hope that things improve rather than asking for help. Are women really any better at asking for help? Women are fiercely independent and strong. Asking for help might feel like a sign of weakness. I will never forget the moment that I held a door open for a woman who stopped at the door and said, “Do I look like I need help?” I was stunned. The point is, men need to ask directions when they are lost and women need to allow someone to hold the door open for them- it would reduce a lot of stress!
Asking for help is the first step in managing a stressful situation. I read about an executive coach who was very skilled at giving help. Yet she felt so stressed, and a counselor told her to ask for help at least three times a day. The first time she asked for help it was easy, she asked a colleague to bring her a soft drink. The second time she asked for directions, even though she knew the way. Only one more to go! As she tried to fit her carry on bag into the overhead compartment, she heard the man waiting ask her if he could help. The plane had been delayed and everyone seemed to be waiting for her, but her bag didn’t seem to fit. She dismissed him without even looking in his direction. Finally the gentleman reached over and took her bag and placed it smoothly into the compartment. She said,“As I offered my thanks, I straightened up and finally looked him in the face. I noticed that he was smiling. In fact, his smile transformed me. At that moment I felt connected to this gentleman—not in a romantic, stranger-on-the-plane way, but simply as one person to another.” She had learned the lesson that asking for help means allowing a connection to be made, a very human, kind connection.
The Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin agrees with this connection: “Asking for a favor is a sign of intimacy and trust. Studies show that for happiness, providing support is just as important as gettingsupport. By offering people a way to provide support, you generate good feelings in them.” If you are one of those people who do appreciate the opportunity to show the people who matter in your life that you are willing to support them, why would you not allow them the same opportunity? One reason why people may not ask for help is because they did not have a role model who allowed help. I caught myself this week. As I walked in the door of my home, my son must have noticed by the look on my face that I was lost in concern. I said hello to my family and he said, “Do you need any help?” I answered, “No, no, don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.” A few minutes later he told me that even though he was nine, he still knew a lot about the world. He was right. I could have paused and received some comfort. We should be willing to give and receive the gift of help especially from our loved ones, and beware the tendency to fall into an individually self-focused world.
The recent movie, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as the main character Ryan Bingham, is a perfect example of this. His introductory voice-over of “To know me is to fly with me,” illustrates how his identity is caught up in membership in a frequent flyer program that has a goal of 10 million frequent flyer miles. Manohla Dargis, a New York Times film critic wrote: “For most people there’s no joy in sucking down recycled oxygen while hurtling above the clouds. For most of us, air travel invokes the indignities of the stockyard, complete with the crowding and pushing, the endlessly long lines, hovering handlers, carefully timed feedings, a faint communal reek and underlying whiff of peril. The skies rarely seem friendly anymore, but to Ryan Bingham they are so welcoming they’re his home.”He packs everything he needs into one carry-on and rapidly moves from plane to car rental agencyto his hotel. He spends most evenings by himself in hotel rooms. He is a “career transition” counselor who fires people city to city. One film critic said, “Bingham is the grim reaper of job-death on the march, carrying a severance packet instead of a scythe.” Sitting at countless conference tablesthat all look alike, his message is alike, “Your position has been eliminated,” convincing people that the company had no choice because down-sizing was necessary, and this would be a good opportunity to pursue dreams or spend more time with family. His intense individualism finds comfort as an anonymous figure in sterile airports and hotel rooms.
He also gives motivational talks about achieving success. In one of his seminars he spoke about traveling lightly through life: “How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life….you start with the little things. The shelves, drawers, knick knacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, appliances, your TV…the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home…I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office…then you move into people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, sisters, children, parents, and finally your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend. You get them into the backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living.” Asking for help and making that connection with others would only slow him down in life. He continued, “Some animals were meant to carry each other; to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.” The whole point of our church’s vision statement, “Growing our Community of Faith,” is to build relationships, to nurture a community of swans, to offer support for each other, to nurture and sustain one another.
In a telling scene in the movie, an airline representative says to Ryan Bingham, “We appreciate your loyalty.” His loyalty was to an airline, not to a partner, friend, or a community of faith. One film critic said, “Bingham’s life of constant travel and emotional detachment seemed strangely appealing because it is so neat and tidy, like a Clorox commercial. Just watching it,” she wrote, “made me feel a little embarrassed about my own messy, cluttered, life as a working mom, wife, and dog owner. As the film progresses, though, the audience begins to see the emotional toll this life takes on Ryan. One character vividly describes him as living in a ‘cocoon of self banishment.’ She confronts him with a hard truth of her own, telling him, ‘You’ve set up a way of life that basically makes it impossible for you to make any human connections.’”
If you find yourself moving in that direction, the first person you need to ask for help is God. Yes, start with God. Have you ever considered the commandment not to take God’s name in vain, as meaning, “Do not forget to ask God for help?” During the Death of God movement of the 1970’s, Professor Robert Webber delivered a chapel message at Wheaton College. He stated that the commandment could have a broader meaning, as if we profane God when we live “as though God did not exist.” Always living as God exists means not being reluctant to turn to God for help. The Bible teaches us again and again that God stands by ready to help us. So back to the key question, why is it that so often we don’t ask? Why do we try to do everything other than asking God for help when struggles come? Are we afraid? Nervous? Ashamed? Completely overwhelmed? Do we doubt whether God really cares about our problems? Do we think that perhaps it’s pointless? Too late? That there is no hope? God is waiting to help. Psalm 34 states, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me.He delivered me from all my fears.” Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” The Bible tells us again and again of God’s concern for us. God knows your name (John 10:3), the number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30), God counts the steps of your feet (Job 14:16), sees the tears from your eyes (Psalm 56:8), God holds your right hand in His hand (Psalm 73:23). God supplies all our needs (Philippians 4:19).
Even the most self sufficient should ask for help every now and then. Everyone needs help, not for an exchange of kindness, because it is not about reciprocity. People need to be willing to be helped even when they realize they cannot repay the person’s kindness. It is about allowing kindness to happen between people. Stubborn independence, fear of shame, embarrassment, or rejection should be overcome so you can feel free to ask for help. When you ask for help you strengthen the connection, so get stronger with others and with God. God will not reject you. God speaks to you in Psalm 50, verse 15, “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will honor me.”