What the Help!!

I'm thinking about help:  needing it and asking for it.

I’m thinking about help: needing it and asking for it.

Here in suburbia, it’s not always the land of picket fences, two car garages and expansive green lawns.  People need help. And I mean all kinds of people.  For us, the requests from our daughter’s elementary school have been coming in at a fairly rapid clip.  Licorice sales, nights of childcare, read-a-thon, jog-a-thon and every other imaginable a-thon.  When I was growing up, hell, the shit was fully funded.  Not now.  And it’s not just schools, it’s every other social service organization that’s been forced to cut its budget.  But you know what?  Your friend, the one who’s getting divorced with three kids?  She needs help, too.  Lots of it.  Only she’s not asking.

Why does it seem like the ones who need it the most are the least likely to ask for help? Could be a whole host of reasons, such as fear of judgment by others, of losing the perception of being “strong” or “independent,” or maybe they just don’t want to feel like they would somehow owe you.  In a recent study done by the Fetzer Institute on the neuroscience of love, compassion and forgiveness, it was found that as we experience fear, our capacity for trust diminishes.  When we need to trust other people in times of need, that pesky little amygdala  is activated, causing us to hesitate, to hedge our bets.  It might be safer to not ask for help, because we might lose our standing as the one who always gets it done.  We might be perceived as having a crack in our armor.  In our society, there’s not much worse than that.

A dear friend of mine once told me that the only real friends you have are the ones you can call to help you move.  Having moved more times than a vagabond, I can honestly say this is true.  Maybe it’s not a move.  Maybe you found out your husband is cheating on you.  Maybe you screamed at your kids.  Maybe you want to leave your job.   Any time you need help with something that seems huge and overwhelming, you want someone who:

  • shows up.  Does what they say they will do.  Plain and simple.
  • will not string you along, as in, “I might be available, I’m not sure, I’ll let you know.”
  • will not be disappointed that you may, in fact, fuck up sometimes.  So maybe not, like, your dad.
  • is not uncomfortable with someone asking for help, for example, someone who would NEVER ask for help.
  • is honest and will hold a mirror up to your imperfections.  And you let them.
  • won’t try and out-misery your misery.  That’s the worst.  It’s hard enough to ask, right?
  • is not a blabbermouth.  You know who.
  • is not the person who gives and gives and gives and never lets you give back.  Then you feel like a user.
  • just gets it.  That’s all.

Here’s the thing too.  People want to help!  In a study published last year at the University of Oregon, people’s “feel-good” areas of the brain lit up when they engaged in charitable giving.  Structures such as the ventral striatum and parts of the frontal cortex became more active, just as much as if they themselves had received a check.  But, as any charitable organization knows, it all rides on the ask.  How do you ask for help, anyway?

It doesn’t matter if you are asking for a thousand dollars or a ride home for your daughter.  Tough to do, either way.  The danger, however, is that your stalling will cause your problem to snowball into a full blown avalanche.  It’s hard not to be freakish and panicky when you ask someone to watch your kids the next day because it’s, well, the next fucking day.  What would have been a lot easier to do a week ago is now incredibly difficult.  Keeping  it simple.  Women, it seems, are particularly guilty of this.  We give too much background information, seeking pity, when what we truly need is some damn help!

Everyone needs a little help sometimes.

Everyone needs a little help sometimes.

When I think about the things that bring me the most satisfaction and joy, it’s the ways I connect to my friends and my family.  And that often means helping them in small, seemingly meaningless ways.  But I know how it feels to have someone really have my back and do something for me that, although small, felt absolutely essential at the time.  My mom putting a cold compress on my forehead when I had a fever.  My husband forwarding me a useful article.  My friend bringing me a cold 7-Up  when I was hot and dehydrated.  You know how it feels to receive the sweet embrace of a loving gesture.  A gesture so filled with meaning that “thank you” seems a meek and hopelessly inadequate phrase.  But say it anyway.  It’s enough.

Compassion is more than fundamentally human, it may even be a life extender.  Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo is doing research now that says that compassion decreases your stress hormones, which lead your chemistry to go haywire and result in inflammation and all kinds of bad mojo churning in your body.  What’s important is offering help to someone you care about, so comforting your colleague who loses her job is more important than volunteering at  a shelter or someone else where you are not emotionally invested.

So, the next time you need some help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.  Think of it this way:  you are giving your friend or neighbor the opportunity to extend their lives and reduce their stress!  How great a friend are you!  I mean, you would do the same for them.

When’s the last time you asked for help?

Nailed it, Lennon.

Nailed it, Lennon.

Many thanks as always to Barbara Paulsen of Mt. Hood Mama photos.  I asked for her help.  I knew she would.

“Mom, I’m scared.” Yeah, me too.

I'm thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

I’m thinking about fear; how it affects what we do, who we are and how we live.

As parents, we are often called upon to allay our children’s fears.  Spiders, the dark and blood are common fears among the kid-set.  But what about when their fears overlay our own?  What about when the things they fear bring about thoughts about what we fear in ourselves and our own lives?  When your 8 year old says, “I’m afraid that you might die in a car accident,” is there a little voice in your own head that says, oh my sweet girl, that scares the shit out of me, too.

The things I am scared of now are not the same things I was scared of in my twenties.   Then, it was more about worry over getting my heart broken, obtaining a speeding ticket, sleeping through my alarm or getting caught with an open bottle of beer in my car.  Now, my fears directly relate to my people.  I’m sure yours do, too.  Am I doing damage by the way I parent them?  Subtext:  will they get pregnant at 18 and drop out of college?  Am I giving my husband the attention he deserves?  Subtext:  will he finally get tired of the fact that I put my pajamas on at 7:30 and go have an affair?  At this point, all my fears come down to one basic fear:  There are people in this world for whom I am responsible.  They count on me.  I can’t screw this up.  It is no longer just about me.

This week has piled fear on top of fear in our country: bombs, jihad, chemical explosions and all manner of anarchy.  The footage of those young guys calmly preparing to kill people is disconcerting to say the least.  The London marathon, held this past weekend, reportedly had significantly fewer and more jittery spectators in attendance.  My daughter, despite her fears, rides in the car with me on a nearly daily basis. So it got me thinking.   How do we do it?  How do we get past our fears?  Of course, there is a fear and subsequent emotional response when we encounter situations which make us afraid.  Your lovely amygdala, almond sized in the temporal portion of your brain, mediates the fear response.  When you get sweaty palmed, tight lipped and tummy-sick from fear, you have your amygdala to blame.  So what keeps this little guy from going into overload?  Another structure called the rostrate cingulate tells your amygdala to chill out.  In my daughter’s case, having been in the car many times, the rostrate cingulate quells the fears by relying on prior evidence that this car thing is actually pretty safe.

That little gem the amygdala.

That little gem the amygdala.

And also, there is Brene Brown‘s work which tells us that “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”  According to her research on courage and vulnerability, anything worthwhile we get in life is basically because we put ourselves out there.  And being fearful is in direct conflict with being joyful in the world.

Ok, so I get it.  Fear is part of life.  We rely physiologically on fear to prepare us in case we need to get the hell out of a situation.  We need to walk through fear to feel relief and relinquish the idea that we actually have some modicum of control in our lives.  I think about people like Woody Allen or author Jonathan Goldstein, who have made careers out of their fretful, some would say neurotic manner.  Both are highly successful, but retain a certain level of skepticism and arms-distance from the scarier aspects of life.  Then I think about adventure junkies like that rock climber who doesn’t use ropes.  Or people who hike by themselves for vast distances without knowing where they are going.  We are all part of the same human continuum.  After the Boston marathon, we can choose to never do a sponsored race again.  We can live in blame.  Or we can sign up.  And show up.  And see what happens.

In suburbia, I have heard people wondering if this is the “new normal.”  Worrying about the future of our children.  Of our country.  I get it.  I worry, too.  While following the news coverage of the hunt for the suspects, I heard the story of a community in the heart of the lock down.  The families gathered in a neighbor’s house, made pancakes, the kids played in the playroom and the adults made inappropriate jokes and speculated on the reasons the suspects did what they did.  What an awesome gathering!  What a remarkable way to heal.  Together.  Because really, aren’t we all just a little fucking over being afraid?

So, yes, my 8 year old is afraid.  She frets.  She worries.  But I admire her deeply.  She tells me what scares her.  She trusts me listen, help and most importantly, not judge.  With such unabashed honesty, her giant pooling eyes well with tears.  But she is so smart.  She knows she doesn’t have to go it alone, that sharing gives purpose and meaning to things which make no sense.  In her fear, she does not blame and she does not get angry.  And after we talk and snuggle, she’s better and runs off to play.

We could learn a thing or two from her.

It's okay.

It’s going to be okay.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen from Mt. Hood MaMa Iphoneography for her beautiful photos.  Don’t be afraid to check out some of them.