Years ago, not long after my father died, a friend of mine called in a favour. While I can’t even remember her name, I do remember the favour: to be present while her favourite horse was put down. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But I went because she asked.
I have a vivid memory of standing in the barnyard, hearing the vet say he was sorry, watching that old horse collapse to the ground. My friend didn’t cry or speak; she just stood. And I just stood silent next to her.
I’ve been thinking lately about asking and showing up: what it means to stand next to each other. I’ve had the opportunity to be on both ends of the stick, so to speak, over the last months.
On the one hand, our household has some struggles with diminished collective capacity. Friends have stepped in when we asked for help, hauling wood, making dinners, offering varied kinds of support. They check in regularly, sometimes so often that I want to turn off the phone. And yet, I can’t imagine how lonely and fearful I might feel if they weren’t there.
On the other hand, a young friend is suffering a mental health relapse. Part of the disease is the profound isolation that sufferers experience, so we’re doing all we can to relieve that loneliness. I’ve never texted so much in my life; I’m sure that she must want to turn off her phone, sometimes.
We human beings become distressed when we see another’s distress. There’s something in us that longs to relieve another’s pain. A neuropsychologist might say that it’s a function of our mirror neurons; a social scientist might talk about socialization; an ethicist might speak about the moral distress of being unable to alleviate suffering. Whatever the origin, to be fully human is to care for one another, to want to help.
I always heard, “It’s better to give than to receive.” But lately, I think that’s wrong. All of us independent suckers, all of us backwoods stoics, all of us family survivors, all of us who don’t want to cause anyone else any trouble or don’t want anybody messing in our business: we need to learn to ask for help. Now. Because our friends and families and neighbors need to give. It pains them to see us suffering. When we let someone help us, everyone nestles more deeply into relationship and belonging.
Asking for assistance doesn’t make us defective human beings. My unnamed friend didn’t need someone to take away her sorrow, just someone to stand by her. Our mental-health-challenged friend doesn’t need us to fly across the country to fix her, just to witness her struggle and love her. And I don’t want my neighbors to cancel their vacation in order to keep our woodpile stocked, just to haul some wood when they’re around.
We don’t need to make grand gestures or epic displays of our generosity. Just stand up, and stand by each other.