Read an Excerpt
MAYDAY!ASKING FOR HELP IN TIMES OF NEED
By M. Nora Klaver
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 M. Nora Klaver
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhy We Don't Ask
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein
Asking for help is a universally dreaded endeavor. We often choose instead to continue on alone, struggling valiantly and often unnecessarily with day-to-day burdens or even with crises, convinced that asking for help would exact an emotional price too high to bear. Nonetheless, in a world where people are living longer than ever before and may need ever more support over time, reliance on others has become increasingly necessary. It is time that the universal signal of mayday is sent.
No one is immune from need—not CEOs, not the cleaning staff, not store owners nor the store clerks. Grandparents, parents, and children all require a boost at some point. Team leaders and teammates, coaches and players, teachers and students, presidents and citizens all must, at some time, ask for aid.
Yet so many of us resist. One can't help but wonder, if we all experience need, why it is so hard to ask for another's help in satisfying that need. What parents wouldn't want their child to come to them with a problem needing resolution? What loving spouse wouldn't want to be called upon to support her partner? What leader would prefer to be kept in the dark if a team member needed help? There comes a time in everyone's life where we can't move forward unless we rely on others. The people who know and love us want us to ask. Yet we ignore our need. We pretend that we'll get through on our own, and in the process, deny the frail reality of our humanity.
Too many of us would rather go it alone when help is available ... just for the asking. Something stops us from asking, but what, exactly, is it? A number of reasons are valid—to a point. What follows is an overview of the pressures that prevent us from asking for what we need. Each reason either muddies our mayday signals or stops us from sending them at all. When that happens, we lose more than we realize.
We Were Never Taught How
Children are taught early to share their toys and treats. We regularly remind them—and ourselves—that it's right and polite to share with others. As self-involved little kids, we might hesitate to offer our toys and cookies, but after a while we see how pleased mom and dad look when we do. As we grow older, we begin to give generously because it feels good and not because it is expected.
Coming from a large family of nine children, I have early memories of "helping" around the house. We had our chores of course, but we were also expected to help one another, most of all the young ones. Regardless of how annoying my little brother could be, my duty was to hold his hand and guide him.
Sharing is important, no one argues that point. We may not notice, however, that as we teach our kids how to share, we inadvertently teach them other lessons as well.
When we encourage children to share, we acknowledge their position of abundance, whether it is a full plate of cookies or just more life experience. We also unintentionally point out that a difference exists between the two children: one has something, the other does not. A new, and uneven, power structure is established. The one blessed with abundance is usually the one with the power to decide what happens next. This unequal arrangement is fairly obvious to everyone involved; even the children may sense it.
Sharing is, and always will be, an important lesson to teach. But little time and energy have been spent advising us what to do when we are burdened with need or in a position of lack. Where are the lessons that teach us the best way to ask for what we need?
We encourage our kids to come to us when they need our help, or to seek out school counselors or trusted teachers. Encouragement is often where the lesson stops. Few of us explain how to ask, and fewer still describe why we should. No one learns to ride a bike on his own, and few people learn how to ask for help without someone to show them how.
The seemingly simple act of requesting help is more complex and less easily taught than our simple and frequent lessons on how to share. Thankfully, it is no less complicated than other lessons we learn along the way about personal honesty and integrity. Consider this book your new primer on how to make requests for what you need!
We Have Few Models
We sometimes learn important lessons in life from stories containing models or archetypes. Classic tales like Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs contain universal examples of acceptable and safe behavior. These archetypal stories and characters communicate images that are immediately recognizable and representative of the human condition. Passed down from generation to generation, they convey common and valuable truths.
Perhaps the greatest advocate of the wisdom of archetypes was Carl Jung, the renowned twentieth century psychologist. Jung examined archetypes extensively and theorized that they represent not only recognizable images, but also a shared human psyche. "The collective unconscious—so far as we can say anything at all about it—appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious." If true, then archetypes instruct us at a very basic level about our own humanity.
Another of my teachers, Caroline Myss, author of the remarkable best seller Sacred Contracts, uses archetypes to illuminate the personal journeys we all take. A convenient and helpful Gallery of Archetypes is included at the end of Sacred Contracts. From Addict to Warrior, Myss describes seventy of the more common archetypal personas that humans adopt. You have already lived many of these: Child, Artist, Athlete, Companion, Lover, Saboteur, Victim, and Warrior.
From Myss and Jung we learn that archetypes contain familiar stories that don't just represent what we have in common; they also teach us great lessons about heroism, failure, and everyday existence. Was there an archetype that would teach us how to be vulnerable and still survive—how to ask for help? I began to search for a unifying and recognizable image that depicted a healthy approach to asking for help.
Those who ask for help are often seen as personifying the archetype of the Beggar. Caroline Myss describes it well; "Completely without material resources, the Beggar is associated with dependence on the kindness of others, living on the streets, starvation, and disease, whether in New York City or Calcutta." Clearly, the Beggar is not an image we usually want to emulate as we transmit our own mayday calls.
Or is it? Myss goes on to describe the Beggar in all of us; "People 'beg' for attention, love, authority, and material objects ... From a symbolic perspective, the Beggar archetype represents a test that compels a person to confront self-empowerment beginning at the base level of physical survival. Learning about the nature of generosity, compassion, and self-esteem are fundamental to this archetypal pattern." When we ask for assistance, we do learn a great deal about generosity and the impact it has on our self-images. But these lessons are indirect consequences that come from acting out the Beggar archetype. The Beggar does not directly teach us how to ask for the help we need.
Perhaps ancient Greek mythology is able to provide a direct and positive model to show us how to ask for help. One story, in particular, seemed to demand a request for help, that of Demeter, the Goddess of the Earth, and her daughter, the beautiful Persephone. Ruthlessly kidnapped by Hades, the God of the Underworld, Persephone is separated from her mother. Realizing her beloved girl is gone, Demeter begins a frantic search that lasts for days. She finally goes to Zeus, her brother, and demands that he tell her where her daughter is. He refuses and Demeter in retaliation and grief, essentially, goes on strike, causing the fields of the Earth to lie barren and the rivers to dry up.
After reading a number of variations of the story, I wanted to shake Demeter's mythological shoulders and yell, "You fool! Why? Why didn't you just ask for help?" How could Demeter not know that people do not respond well to demands, especially mythological gods?
Another archetypal story is that of the Good Samaritan. The Bible tells of a man, brutally robbed and left for dead by the side of a road, who is helped by a stranger—a citizen of Samaria. (For a sharply witty and thought-provoking study of this parable, read Help: The Original Human Dilemma by Garret Keizer.) As inspiring a story as this is, the Good Samaritan allegory contains lessons about giving help, not asking for it.
The Bible contains a number of instances of people beseeching God and Jesus for help. Some of the requests for help are implied, as in the story of Lazarus who was raised from the dead. Martha, Lazarus' sister, came to Jesus to inform him that her brother had died, but she did not directly request Jesus' intervention. Other stories, as well, have clear and straightforward pleas for help. In Mark 5:21, Jairus said to Jesus, "My little daughter is critically ill. Please come and lay your hands on her so that she may get well and live." And in Mark 7:24 a Canaanite woman approached Christ and "began to beg him to expel the demon from her daughter." In both cases, Jesus responds with compassion and healing.
Finally! Positive examples of requests for help! Jairus and the Canaanite woman both demonstrate that heartfelt pleas can be made and answered!
As affirming as these tales are, they still don't seem to fit as unifying and easily recognizable images. Quick! What comes to mind when you hear the word Beggar? More than likely you get an immediate image of a bedraggled person. Use the word in conversation and the other person will immediately understand your meaning. Now describe what comes to mind when you hear the words Jairus or Canaanite woman. More likely, your mental response is a blank one. How interesting that these affirming models have not made it into our cultural lexicon, while the negative model of Beggar has. Sadly, there seems to be no universally accepted and immediately familiar image that represents a person blessed with enough self-care to respectfully and clearly ask for what he or she needs.
In a workshop examining the three feminine archetypes, Virgin, Mother and Crone, I approached Jean Shinoda Bolen, Ph.D. and author of Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman. We discussed my search for relevant archetypes. After some thought, Dr. Shinoda Bolen shook her head. "I'm not aware of any archetypes that support asking for help ... but," she added, "If we don't have the model, we sometimes need to create our own." What an inspiring perspective! Perhaps one day, we will all serve as models for those who desperately need and want to ask for help.
We Love Our Independence
Contemporary society has its own share of archetypes and models that dissuade us from asking for help. The iconic images of the United States celebrate the independent ideal: the lone cowboy, the business magnate who succeeds because of his own strong will and refusal to quit, and most recently, the super mom who raises her kids and simultaneously seals the multimillion-dollar deal. The classic American archetype is one who finds his own path and succeeds: Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. In film, we celebrate the power of the individual through characters played by strong, self-determining actors like John Wayne, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Orson Welles. As a nation and a culture, we've been living with and promoting the dream of independence since 1776. Perhaps we've gone a bit overboard.
An offshoot of our love of independence is the value we place on the individual. In his work on defining national cultures, social scientist Geert Hofstede identified five key dimensions, one of which assesses a nation's tendency toward individualism or collectivism. Hofstede writes, "On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/ herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty." Not surprisingly, the United States outranks all other nations—by a wide margin—on measures of individualization. One person, one vote; MySpace pages; personal playlists; personalized marketing, and the rise of the small, independent business owner—each is a testament to how much we value the individual.
Independence and individualization generate great stories of self-determination, but they can also lead to very lonely and isolated lives. Robert Putnam, author of the revealing Bowling Alone, cites startling statistics that bring to light the consequences of a culture driven by a relentless search for independence and personal self-expression. According to Putnam, in the last twenty-five years social capital, or the "ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties" has dwindled. Attendance at club meetings is down 58%, involvement in church activities has dropped anywhere from 25 to 50%, and simply having friends over to the house has decreased by 45%. According to the December 4, 2006 issue of Time Magazine, "the number we count among our closest friends—the ones with whom we discuss important maters—shrank over the past 20 years, from three friends to two. At the same time, the number of Americans who have no one at all to confide in more than doubled, to 1 in 4." Troubling statistics that make asking for help more unlikely.
We have pulled away from one another. We have left behind many of the support systems that we once relied upon. This gradual separation from the whole contributes to and reinforces our natural reticence to ask for help. If we don't feel part of something or connected to others, then we reduce the number of potential helpmates. Stepping off society's dance floor keeps us believing we are alone, that no one is there to dance with us. Haven't we had enough of being alone and pulling ourselves up by our individual bootstraps? Have we gone too far with our infatuation with personal independence? Aren't we ready to get involved with each other again?
We Don't Think To Ask
Brainwashed by the lure of independence and individualization, many of us have created singular lives that are grounded in self-sufficiency. So caught up in the habit of taking care of ourselves, we lose sight of when we might even need help!
Pam was, by all conventional measures, successful. She had an important position in her company and lived in an exclusive neighborhood in the city, but she was lonely and feeling the weariness of doing everything on her own. I offered her an assignment that had been given to me years before: Ask for help three times a day.
Pam couldn't do it. She struggled each day to come up with opportunities that would require her to ask for help. After a while, she forgot all about it. She slipped back into her routine of handling everything on her own.
Like Pam, many of us have become so habitually self-sufficient and compulsively busy that we have driven out all thoughts of asking for help. We have created lives that can be handled, for the most part, by one or two people. We'll never invite another in to help if we have become inured or oblivious to our needs.
Excerpted from MAYDAY! by M. Nora Klaver Copyright © 2007 by M. Nora Klaver. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.