We need to ask for help

Posted on September 30, 2019

There’s an image doing the rounds on the internet at the moment. It asks:

“Which is hardest for you to say? 1. I love you. 2. I was wrong, I’m sorry. 3. I need help. 4. I appreciate you. Or 5. Worcestershire sauce.” Now I understand why 1 to 4 might be challenging for people to say, but surely Worcestershire sauce rolls ever so naturally off the tongue. Am I wrong?

When we moved into our house just over 2 years ago there was an old, rusting, basketball hoop on a pole – it was an eyesore and I was determined to fix it. At the start of the summer I finally took the hoop and backboard down, nearly knocking myself out, because I thought I could do it on my own. I ordered the parts to put together the hoop and backboard, and when they arrived, although it said that assembly required two people, I went down into my basement and spent several hours putting it together on my own. I then struggled to take it up from the basement to the pole, knocking into the wall on more than one occasion. And then I stood under that pole for almost half an hour trying to work out if there was a way that I could attach it on my own – there wasn’t. So, I asked my wife Micol for help. I proposed my plan, that we both go up on ladders, 9ft in the air, while simultaneously holding the 50 lb backboard and attaching it. After a long, bemused stare, she asked, “you want us both to stand on ladders while holding this thing?” “Yes,” I answered, less confidently than before. “How about you ask some of our neighbors for help,” she suggested, perhaps less kindly than I’ve depicted in this story.

Well, I didn’t and I haven’t and needless to say that pole is still just a pole and my daughter grows more impatient by the day. The project has stalled because I didn’t want to ask for help. And while a number of you have, rightly, laughed at me as I’ve told this story, or rolled your eyes in Micol’s case, it’s not just me. It’s all of us. We all struggle when it comes to asking for help.

It could be suggested that we can trace the problem back to Moses and the wilderness. We are the descendants of a people who wandered for 40 years in the desert, on a journey that should have taken 11 days, because Moses refused to stop and ask for directions. Well that and a few other things.

In our society, we have somehow equated asking for help with weakness. The archetypes that we celebrate are those that demonstrate self-reliance, independence, and self-sufficiency. These people are admired and placed on a pedestal, while those who seek out help and ask for support are judged negatively, as though their need for help makes them appear as less than. To call someone a self-starter is a term of flattery. We hear politicians and executives brag that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. And we celebrate the self-made people who appear to have succeeded all on their own. It’s not that these things are bad; the problem is that our complete embrace of this singular ideal has discouraged us from admitting that we cannot do something, prevented us from reaching out to others, and stopped us from ever asking for help.

If you walk into any bookshop or library and look for the self-help section (because of course we are reluctant to ask where it is) you will find shelves stocked full of books on every subject. The name itself gives the game away – self-help – I can’t ask you for help, or expect help to come from the outside, I have to find a way to help myself.

Today, as we celebrate the creation of the world, from the very beginning we learn that this was not the way that it was supposed to be, humans were not created to do it all by themselves. In the second chapter of Bereishit, Genesis, God says: “It is not good for Adam to be alone, I will make for him an ezer kenegdo – a challenging helper.”[1] The first thing we learn about humans is that our lives were never meant to be solitary endeavors; from the very beginning we were supposed to be in community and relationship with others. The second lesson we learn is about the core purpose of human beings – to be an ezer kenegdo; a challenging helper. As soon as there were two of us, we entered into a relationship of help and support to challenge and elevate one another.

If the beginning of humanity was marked by the need for help, perhaps it is fitting that the beginning of our lives is the same. As children, asking for help came easier for us. Asking for help was encouraged. As children we were told to raise our hands when we needed help. Raising your hand was not embarrassing; it was the sign of an inquisitive, curious mind. There was no shame in admitting what we didn’t know and in asking for help. Author and professor Brené Brown writes: “Dependence starts when we are born and lasts until we die. We accept our dependence as babies and ultimately, with varying degrees of resistance, we accept help when we get to the end of our lives. But in the middle of our lives, we mistakenly fall prey to the myth that successful people are those that help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.”[2] This myth is in direct opposition to our very origin story, and to our very purpose as human beings – that we, to our core, were created to be helped, and to help others.

Try to think about the last time you asked someone for help. How did it feel? What were the emotions that accompanied the request? Were you apologetic that you even had to ask? Did you feel embarrassed or ashamed at the request? Can you even think of an example?

There was once a family who lived on a farm, journeying monthly across a solitary mountain path to reach a market on the other side. [3] This was where they sold their produce and in turn purchased all of the wares they needed to survive until the next month.

One month, as the father and son set of on their journey along the mountain road they encountered a boulder that was blocking their path. There was no alternative route and so they would need to move the boulder or miss the market, which would have dire consequences.

The son saw an opportunity to impress his father and so he declared: “I will move the boulder”, and the father smiled.

The young boy walked up to the boulder and pushed his right shoulder into it with all of his might, but it did not move. Then he tried to get under the boulder using his legs to try and dislodge it, but still it wouldn’t budge. He gathered sticks and tried to use them as a pivot to shift the rock.

For several hours he toiled unsuccessfully. Eventually, with his head held low he turned to his father and said: “I am sorry, we will have to miss the market this month. The boulder cannot be moved. I have tried everything.”

The father replied: “Did you try everything?” The boy nodded.

So, he asked again: “Are you sure you tried everything?”

With some exasperation the boy recounted all of his attempts and said: “Nothing is going to move that boulder. I have tried everything.”

The father smiled and said, “But there is still one thing you haven’t tried. You never asked me for my help.”

Together, the boy and his father pressed with all of their might against the boulder and dislodged it. With the path cleared they continued on their journey to the market.

How often are we the boy in the story, wanting to do it all on our own, unable or unwilling to admit that we need help from someone else?

We all need help in different ways, all of us are broken in some respect, and none of us have the ability to repair ourselves on our own. In many ways that is the point of this season – to admit and own our brokenness, to reflect upon it and to come together in community for support and help. In the words of Lamentations we pray: Hashivenu Adonai Elohecha venashuva – Help us to return, Adonai our God, and we will return.[4] We know we cannot do it on our own and so we ask God for help. And it’s not just God, we need to ask one another.

I actually wrote a significant portion of this sermon while sitting in Panera. In the space of an hour I have watched from a distance as over 20 people have struggled to open the door to take their food outside. Their hands are full and so they’ve maneuvered feet and backs to try and prop the door open. Not one paused to see if someone was nearby who could assist. No one asked the person by the door if they could help. Everyone chose to struggle on their own.

Opening the door and putting up my basketball hoop may be on the more trivial side of asking for help. But there are many ways that all of us need real help each and every day.

As you heard the story of the father and the son, most of you were probably thinking about the various reasons why the son was reluctant to ask for help. But what about the father? Imagine how he must have felt watching his son struggle. And then how it must have felt working together to shift the boulder. How it felt being needed by his son? How do we feel when we have the opportunity to help another person?

Most of us like being able to help others. We enjoy assuming the role of being the helper and there’s a biological reason for that. When we help people, the altruism center of the brain is triggered and various neurochemicals are released, all of which serve to boost our moods. Helping others makes us happy – it’s in our hardwiring to want to help. And when we help another person, it’s with no thought of reward; we do it because it is the right thing, because we have the ability and because biologically it makes us feel great.

In the Talmud we are told that there are nine mitzvot, commandments, for which we receive both a reward in this world and in the world to come.[5] Six of them require us to help another person; they include “dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial.”[6] We cannot fulfill these commandments without offering our help to another. When we ask someone for help, we give them a gift; we actually help them fulfill a mitzvah.

Asking for help comes with the obvious primary benefit of receiving the assistance we need, but that is not where it ends. Learning how to receive help can actually help us become better helpers. In her book, Rising Strong, Brené shares the story of her Me-Ma, her grandmother.[7] She used to live half a block from the railroad tracks in San Antonio; the train would cross right at the end of their street. There was a small hill leading up to the tracks that provided the perfect place for “hobos” to jump from the boxcars. Her grandmother kept five metal plates, five metal glasses and five metal forks in a dishpan under the sink and she would always cook more food than the family could eat. On a regular basis, hobos would knock on the door and ask for dinner. They would sit on the front porch and Me-Ma would serve them food on her special dishes. “The hobos used a system of markings on the curbs of the neighborhood to indicate who was safe and who wasn’t, who might feed them and who wouldn’t.” It’s possible that this might have been the origin of the term “easy mark”.

Me-Ma had something that many of us don’t: the capacity to receive. She didn’t judge others because she too had lived through hardship, suffering poverty, domestic violence, divorce and her own alcoholism. She also had no problem with need. As Brené’s mother explained: “She wasn’t afraid of people in need because she wasn’t afraid of needing others … She didn’t mind extending kindness to others, because she herself relied on the kindness of others.” Brené came to learn something significant about offering helping and its connection to receiving help: “When you judge yourself for needing help, you judge those you are helping. When you attach value to giving help, you attach value to needing help.”

Me-Ma approached giving and receiving in a way that is different from many of us. She did not judge herself for needing help and therefore did not judge others, and this made her a much better helper. Brené learned an important lesson from her grandmother. She says, “I think I unconsciously developed a value system that helped me make sense of my role – a way to look at giving and receiving that made me feel better and soothed the pain of not allowing myself to ask for help. The axiom of that dangerous system was simple: Helping is courageous and compassionate, and a sign that you have it together. Asking for help is a sign of weakness.”[8]  I believe that many of us are stuck in this mindset; and the danger of defining our self-worth by being a helper is that we feel shame when we have to ask for help. As Me-Ma taught us, learning how to receive help can actually make us a better helper.

In our culture of perfectionism we have lost sight of the fact that asking for and receiving help is at the core of being human and having a connection with another person. Our children will quickly lose the ability to ask for the help that they need if they don’t see the adults in their lives modeling the asking for them. In our world, being an “easy mark” has come to be a negative term used to describe someone who is a sucker, a weak person easily taken advantage of. But as we learned from Me-ma’s story, an “easy mark” originally meant being known for compassion, someone who provided help in a safe place without judgment. Brené writes: “For the strangers who broke bread at my grandmother’s house, the mark was a sign of courage and compassion. For my grandmother, generosity and giving were not the opposite of receiving: They were parts of the compact between human beings.”[9] Being an easy mark was the highest form of humanity.

Offering help is courageous and compassionate, but so is asking for help.

Bob Dylan said it perfectly: “May you always do for others and let others do for you.”[10] Life is about giving and receiving help, it was never supposed to be exclusively about one or the other. At this time of year, as we repeatedly ask God for help to return and to enter the New Year having let go of the sins we have committed. Perhaps we can also use it as a springboard to begin asking each other for help.

And I want to make this easy for all of us.

We need to take away the stigma of needing help and own the fact that none of us can do it on our own. Our congregant, Mary Beth Rettger, introduced me to a practice commonly used in the corporate world called a Reciprocity Ring.[11] In basic terms, people are encouraged to share their requests for help in a communal setting, reminding us that we all need help; it’s not just you, it’s me and all of us. And so, in the entry way of the Temple, we have taken over one of the noticeboards by the main office with a basket filled with cards. Write what you need help with on a card, pin it to the board and wait for people to respond, checking back every so often. We already have a number of cards on the board, including one that asks for help setting up a basketball hoop. When you leave the sanctuary there will be cards at the back, please take one, even if there’s nothing you feel you need to ask for help with today, and then please check the board occasionally and see if you can offer help and support to someone who needs it.

“I need help” may be among the three hardest words to say, but when we can speak them we open up a world of possibilities, we create an immediate connection, and we give permission for others to ask the same of us. As a community, we could be a center where people ask for help and people enthusiastically respond to those requests. We can break the myth of self-made success and we could be a community of supportive and supported people; asking others for help when we need it, and giving help when others request it. All of us are broken in some way, none of us can do it on our own; the first step is to simply ask for help.

I’m asking you to help us become a community where people can ask and receive. And I’m asking someone to please, please help me put up my basketball hoop. Shana Tova!

[1] Genesis 2:18
[2] Brené Brown “Rising Strong”, p.182-3.
[3] I am grateful to Rabbi Neal Katz who shared the story from which this one is adapted.
[4] Lamentations 5:21
[5] The passage is part of the daily liturgy found in Mishkan Tefillah, based on Mishnah Peah 1:1 and Talmud Shabbat 127a.
[6] Mishkan Tefillah p.88.
[7] The following story and quotes are taken from ibid. p.174-5.
[8] Ibid. p.180.
[9] Ibid. p.183
[10] Lyrics are in the Bob Dylan song “Forever Young”
[11] The idea of a Reciprocity Ring is shared by Adam Grant in his Book “Give and Take”.