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There is an old joke that has been often told about why Moses and the Jewish people wandered lost in the desert for forty years. Had the Jews been led by women, instead of by men, they would have asked for directions almost immediately and saved themselves all that time! Indeed, the joke pokes fun at men as it stereotypes them as too stubborn and arrogant to ask for help. While there is some truth to this stereotype, it’s also clear that many women have bought into the idea that dogged independence is the mark of true strength.
A more recent story is told about a feminist life coach who had just spent a few days at a conference listening to arrogant men speak of their abilities. After boarding her airplane home, she went to lift her heavy roller bag into the overhead bin. Tired and weak from a long day, she struggled to get the bag off the ground. A man behind her reached out and offered to help. She brusquely pushed him aside and struggled even harder to lift the bag. Eventually, she did get it over her head but her arms buckled and the bag nearly crashed onto the head of a seated passenger. Luckily, the Good Samaritan who had earlier offered his help quickly grabbed the bag before it did any harm. He swiftly lifted it into the overhead bin. The female life coach suddenly realized that her stubbornness and wariness of cocky men had made her arrogant and cocky. She’d been unwilling to accept or ask for help even as she clearly needed it. Her attitude had nearly caused someone to get hurt
The fundamental issue with ancient Jewish men, as the joke suggests, was one of arrogance and pride. That same issue affected the female life coach who believed that as a self-empowered woman, she had the strength and independence to take care of herself, thank you very much!
Learning to ask for help is the uncommon New Year’s resolution I ask us to consider today. On the surface, asking for help from others appears to be needy and self-focused. It’s an ironic twist on the ethic of helping others more than we help ourselves. Indeed, how is asking for help NOT a form of selfishness and arrogance?
The truth is that failing to ask for help is a pervasive problem in American culture and history. Americans have long honored the rugged individual and the independent cowboy who can do it all without any help from others. It’s an ethos that is a part of our mythology that the true greatness of our nation lies in the “can do” spirit of the individual as opposed to the cooperative abilities of our diverse population. This individualist mindset hungers to be in control. It refuses to admit weakness or vulnerability. It believes strength and success are achieved only by the person who pulls oneself up by his or her bootstraps, no matter the circumstances. It is a belief rooted in pride of the self – believing that the individual is the center of the universe, instead of the wider creation.
I can suffer from this condition myself even as I believe I am compassionate, cooperative and want to help others. Too often, I fail to ask for help when I need it or, even worse, I reject help that is offered me. I fear being judged if I’m seen as weak or needy. I want to be a helper more than someone who is helped. My root issue is pride. I don’t want you or others to see my flaws. While I am getting better at recognizing when I need help and then asking for it, it is still an issue for me. As I’ve said before, I often pick message topics that speak to me as much as they might to you.
Refusing to ask for help is the same problem that causes people, usually men, to drive around lost. It leads far too many people to ignore symptoms of health problems and refuse to see a doctor until its too late. Emergency rooms are daily filled with men and women who ignore early heart attack signs thinking they can tough out a bit of chest pain. It causes some to wait until they are deep in debt before going to a credit counselor. It causes managers and leaders to take on too many tasks while failing to delegate responsibility or admit they need help. The result is burn out or mediocre performance. It leads nations into arrogantly believing they can act alone in financial or military action while failing to negotiate, compromise or cooperate with other nations. Sadly, Japanese nuclear managers would not admit they needed help during the Fukishima nuclear reactor meltdown crisis a few years ago – thus allowing the situation to spiral out of control. It’s an issue in our own lives when we play the stoic martyr and push away people who deeply want to love and serve us. Refusing to admit weakness and failing to ask for help is a significant problem in our culture. Paradoxically, it is not a sign of strength but instead one born of insecurity. Learning to ask for help is an uncommon resolution many of us ought to consider for the New Year.
It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase that God helps those who help themselves. Many people wrongly believe the statement is in the Bible. While hypocrisy, cheating and theft are condemned throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures, it is a sign of faith if one admits to being weak, vulnerable and in need of help. Indeed, the Bible soundly condemns those who arrogantly believe themselves to be sufficient on their own. Blessed are the meek and the humble who admit their needs.
Jesus told those he healed that it was their trust and goodness that made them well. Implicit in what he told them was the notion that only those who know and confess their needs, only those who do not rely on intelligence, wealth or power as false security blankets – only these people can find true healing. They are the ones who do not rely on external supports like money or intelligence but inner emotional health. And, that inward health is based on an awareness of the self – it’s strengths AND its weaknesses. The rich, haughty, arrogant and proud – they have their security in their material bounty and in their superior attitudes. The poor in spirit, however, have their security in knowing they are weak and knowing when they need help.
Ultimately, the lesson of Jesus is that being vulnerable is not a weakness. It is an ironic strength. Strength through weakness is a sign of confidence in what is true. It’s an honest confession of frailty and failure. It is a mark of one’s flawed humanity. Truth has set one free to be real and to acknowledge genuine need.
And that is a first key action in learning to ask for help. We must admit to ourselves our own limitations. We must humble ourselves. We must admit our need for help in any area of life – in work, relationships, home tasks, our health, ways to self-improve like losing weight, stopping smoking, or sticking to a New Year’s resolution. Believing we are all intelligent, all powerful superheroes with no need for help from others is a path to destruction.
Sadly, as much as it is part of our American culture to try and go it alone and not ask for help, that ethic is largely taught to young boys all over the world. It is a part of supposedly teaching boys how to become men through tenacity, sucking it up, endurance and never, ever showing weakness. Such is one reason why many men choose to go through life as lone rangers.
Hershel Walker, the famous football running back and Heisman trophy winner, describes an event shortly after he had won the Heisman when he was still in college. He was a macho guy seemingly at the top of the world – all achieved by supposedly his own strength and ability. But one day he got into a telephone argument with his ex-wife. He became enraged, hung up on her, grabbed his gun, loaded it, got in his car and headed for her apartment. On the drive to her place, he stopped behind a car with a bumper sticker on it that implored people to seek spiritual help for life problems. Fortunately, Walker took the message. He was able to suddenly see himself in his rage and recognize he needed help. He was able to realize he was not superman. He immediately called a friend who came and took away the gun and then arranged for Walker to meet with a therapist the next day. Hershel continued therapy for many months and says today that episode was both frightening for him and life changing. Had he not been able to suddenly admit his rage issues AND his need for help, he says his ex-wife might well be dead and he a convicted murderer.
Spirituality teaches the opposite of arrogance and selfishness. Asking for help and admitting weakness is a practice almost all religions advocate.
There is a Muslim story about a young boy who finds a large rock in the middle of his play area. He digs and struggles, pushes and pulls to remove the rock. He strains his young muscles to just barely move it out of the way – only to finally beat against it in anger that it is too heavy. As he does so, a shadow looms over him. The boy looks up and it is his father sternly looking upon him. “Why haven’t you used all of your strength to move that rock?” asks the dad. “I have tried as hard as I can and I have used all my strength,” protests the boy. “No, you haven’t,” says the father. “You have not asked me to help you.” And with that, the dad scoops up the rock and moves it away.
While the story is intended to teach the virtues of seeking Allah and his help, it is also illustrative of spiritual humility which the boy needed to learn. When we truly need help, it is a sign of wisdom and honesty to seek it.
And that is the second key in learning to ask for help. We must ask in a way that is direct, clear, and specific. It does us no good to play small, beat around the bush and fail to truthfully state our needs. Too often I will coyly let it be known that help would be nice but then I diminish my request by failing to be specific or direct. Someone will sincerely tell me they are available to me if I need assistance but I will fail to tell them how. I will assume they should know, or that they, on their own, will begin to help me in a way that I need. But my friends are not mind readers. If I need a ride, I must say so. If I need help cooking, I should say so. If I need someone to just listen to my laments, I must say so. If someone offers to render assistance when I am sick, depressed or lonely, I must respond to their gesture and tell them exactly how he or she can help.
Our duty to family, friends and stranger is to grant them the gift of serving. Too often we fail to realize that it is a gift to serve others. In serving others, we really do receive more than we give. We derive deep pleasure and satisfaction in helping other people. Indeed, we can show our love for others by graciously allowing them to serve us – to humble ourselves and allow them to be in control for a time. It is an ironic form of pride to always be a giver and never a receiver. It is an equally ironic form of humility to ask for and accept help when it is genuinely needed.
The final key to asking for help is knowing how to express gratitude for it. Too many simply take the help of others for granted without speaking of its value and its expression of love and care. There should not be a quid pro quo when we serve others – we do not offer our help in return for reciprocal help or expression of thanks. The one who is helped, the one who does ask for assistance, however, should give evidence of full humility by expressing sincere gratitude.
In sum, learning to ask for help involves three key steps. First, we must admit our need and we can only do that if we recognize what holds us back – our insecurity, our fear, our pride, our desire to always be in control, whatever it is. The solution to those problems is relatively simple – we resolve to honestly recognize our limits.
Second, we must then ask politely but as directly, specifically and clearly as possible. It is not enough to accept help. We must ask for it. To do so, is to truly show our humility.
Finally, and third, we must give thanks for our helpers. An attitude of gratitude, as I’ve said before, is the ultimate form of humility.
Life is, from its very beginning, hard. We, along with all creatures, struggle and work to survive. The glory of almost all living animals, however, is that the fight for survival is not a lonely task. Humans are wired to be in community and to share the unique abilities given to each person. This is the ethic of moral imagination and cooperation. We do better as a species when we sublimate the selfish desires of the individual and channel them, instead, into common work for all humanity. And the only way that can be fully accomplished is if each person serves others more than the self and if each person is also willing to allow others to serve and help them. Such is the mutuality of life. I will live and thrive only if you do too. I need you. You need me. Together, we can then build a form of heaven on earth. Let us resolve in 2014 to ask for help when we truly need it.