Among the most important – and most difficult – realizations I had to contend with on my path to becoming a person is that of learning to ask for help. My life is littered with instances of persisting in a state of futility when engaging with someone else, sometimes something else, would have made the difficult thing an easier thing.
The roots of it have to do with perfectionism/fear of failure and a persistent voice in the head asking questions like, “What if they find out you are not as good as you think? What then?”
I have stood on a lakeshore for over an hour, fruitlessly trying to catch fish while everyone around me was having success.
I have gotten lost on a forested trail three days in a row because of my stubborn unwillingness to slow down and notice the actual signs that marked the way.
I have avoided sharing my written work with talented writers and editors whose thoughtful and helpful criticism might just sting too much.
And the list goes on. Or it went on until I turned a corner and began to practice, albeit imperfectly and sometimes haltingly, some alternative ways of engaging with the sources of help that surround me.
Most recently, I took up the piano. After years of avoiding a hard thing that would make me feel all the painful feelings of being a beginner, I decided it was time to get over it and get on with it. My daughter, an accomplished player at age 13, has been exceedingly helpful to me. My piano teacher, with whom I just recently had my first lesson, is genuinely interested in my success. I am saying “yes” to their quite visible forms of help.
I also spend time with two different peer groups on a monthly basis. These are people in similar fields and with similar aspirations for learning, growth and impact. Our conversations consist of inquiry, revelation and support and just being present with and for one another is a form of deeply important help.
My daily writing on this blog is another way I am seeking and finding a helping hand. Basil King said, “Go at it boldly, and you’ll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid.” Though I sometimes doubt the value of sending yet another post into the dark void of the internet, I am reminded that the practice of doing so is less about where it lands and more about helping myself stay attuned to my own thinking and my own voice. It is a practice in self-help, I suppose.
One final example of saying yes to help: A few weeks ago as I was scrambling to get my things together and get out the door on time for my full day of teaching and office hours at the university, I asked my wife Theresa if she would make a lunch for me to take along. My campus schedule doesn’t allow me the time to get something between classes and on this particular day I didn’t have time to prepare ahead of time. She said yes, of course, and has done the same for me on each Thursday since.
It’s a simple and loving kind of help, the kind that can be taken for granted. But I don’t because it reminds me that I have someone in my corner who is ready and willing to help me as long as I let her know how. And that’s what makes it such an important example, that she – someone who implicitly wants to help me – can’t do so if she doesn’t know how. Which means I have to ask and risk the vulnerability of doing so.
These examples, large and small, remind me that in spite of a deeply rutted pattern of assuming that people will be judgmental or unkind or bothered – a clear projection of my vulnerability – there is another assumption, by far a more accurate one, to be made: that most people, most of the time, want to help.
The unknown variable in the equation, as it turns out, is me.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.