I get by with a little help from my friends

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
July 9, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

We all at some point will be unable to care for ourselves, or will need the help of other people in some way. Why do we struggle so much to ask for help when we need it?

Singer, songwriter and performance artist Amanda Palmer, writes “So, a plea. To the artists, creators, scientists, nonprofit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers, and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept help, in whatever form it’ s appearing: Please, take the donuts. To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band: Take the donuts. To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $ 700 a month, who went on to marry a best-selling author whom she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’ t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please… Everybody. Please. Just take the…” expletive deleted… “donuts!” That’ s from Palmer’ s book, “The Art of Asking or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.

Palmer derives “take the donuts” as a metaphor for being willing to ask for and accept help from a tale she tells about someone we Unitarian Universalists claim as one of our own, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was among our transcendentalist ancestors, whose ideas still influence our Unitarian Universalist religious worldview today and, more generally, still influence the whole of American culture.

Thoreau is perhaps most remembered for his book, Walden, which chronicled his thoughts and experiences living mainly alone for almost three years in a 10 by 15 foot cabin in the woods next to Walden Pond.

What is less often discussed, as Amanda Palmer points out, is that Thoreau’ s cabin sat on land owned by his friend and fellow transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose home in Concord was less than a two mile walk from the cabin. What’ s more, Emerson had Thoreau over for dinner quiet often during his time roughing it by the pond.

Also, Thoreau’ s mother and sister brought him a basket of baked goods every Sunday, which apparently included fresh donuts.

We often attribute our hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance to the transcendentalists, but it seems that these may not have encompassed the entirety of their thinking and way of living. Thoreau wasn’ t foolish – he took the donuts when they were offered.

Part of Palmer’ s point is that this misconstrual has led to a culture in which we can easily over value individual independence, strength and control. We can find it very, very difficult to ask for help, even when we very much need it. We will not let ourselves take the donuts, even when they are freely offered, because we view accepting help as a sign of weakness.

And this can be reflected both in us as individuals and in our larger communities and our larger society. Even our Unitarian Universalist churches have struggled sometimes with a go it alone perspective, not always fully actualizing how we could help and learn from one another. I am pleased to report that there is much work being done at the local, regional and national levels on how we can become better connected amongst our churches and other institutions. As a country, the U.S. has often taken a go it alone or even domineering posture. The U.S. spends more on military and defense than the next eight countries in our world combined, even though we live in a time when military strength alone will not solve problems like terrorism and global climate change. We need the help of others to solve many of our current problems.

At the same time, we do not provide adequate support and care for the poor, our children, people with disabilities and chronic disease and the elderly. If we view asking for help as a sign of weakness, it is far too easy for a society to begin to view needing help as a sign of some character flaw and thus being unworthy of our support.

A society’ s values and ethics, I think, can be evaluated based upon how well it takes care of its young, its sick and disabled and its elderly. By that measure, I’ m afraid ours is in danger of a great moral failure if we do not change course soon.

The thing is, we will all face many of these challenges in our lives. We may face economic challenges at some point. We will all get sick from time to time. All of us will age. Even if we may not currently face physical or mental challenges, still, we are only temporarily abled. In fact, the only way we can avoid an eventual deterioration of our physical abilities is if we manage to somehow get ourselves dead first. We will all need the help of other people at various points in our lives.

On top of that, there are many other life situations wherein, even if we are capable of making decisions and acting on our own, we can still benefit from asking for help. By doing so, we can improve our lives and the lives of others. Complete self-reliance is an impossibility. Human beings need and always have needed one another to survive as a species and to live as fully and as best we can as individuals.

In her book, “Mayday: Asking for Help in Times of Need”, M. Nora Klaver, a renowned business and organizational coach, argues that asking for help can actually lead to making better decisions, generating more creative possibility, improving our emotional well being and forming deeper relationships. Klaver says that not only do we often fail to ask for help when we need it, we also are usually terribly bad at it when we do ask for help. We fidget and fumble our words and cast our eyes downward.

She offers several reasons why we dislike and are so bad at asking for help, but the greatest among them is simply fear. She describes three forms of fear that are rooted in lies that we tell ourselves.

1.) Fear of surrendering control. We’ re afraid that, if we ask for and accept help, we will give up our independence and our control over our own lives. In reality, though, we have far less control than we think we do in the first place. Sometimes surrendering into the present moment, the current situation, the flow of our lives leads to some of our greatest spiritual experiences. Likewise, allowing someone else to help us when we are in need can be a gift of graciousness to them.

2.) Fear of separation. We fear that if we ask for help, those from whom we seek that help or others who witness our asking for it may reject us. This is based in a primal human fear – the lie that we are always, ultimately alone in this world, when in fact, we are greatly interconnected.

3.) Fear of experiencing shame. We fear that if we ask for help, we will reveal our inabilities, flaws and shortcomings and be judged unworthy. We tell ourselves a lie about how we must be perfect in order to deserve human worth and dignity.

Klaver tells a story about a woman she calls, “Gina” to illustrate all of this. Gina was a young mother. Her husband had lost his job and was out of work for an extended period. Gina found herself supporting her family not just financially, but emotionally as well. She had been promoted to a position of high responsibility in her work life, so she had people relying on her both at home and at work. However, to meet their needs, she had been neglecting herself. She gained weight, started smoking and ignored the growing depression she was experiencing.

When Klaver first met Gina, she was on the verge of breaking down, but terrified to ask for help.

She was scared of failing at her job – that if she took any time off to deal with her own needs she would be letting down those who reported to her (fear of surrendering control). She felt as if she had to be perfect – a boss, wife and mother without flaws (fear of shame). In fact, she worried constantly that she might actually lose her job (fear of separation).

Wiping tears from her eyes she had sobbed, “No one can help me! I just have to deal with this situation on my own.”

It took a lot of convincing, but Gina finally agreed to direct some of the concern and compassion she had been showering on others toward herself. She sought help. She called the Employee Assistance Program at her work and got their help finding counseling for her depression. She asked her boss for time off to attend to her own needs. She got her mother to help watch her young son for a few days so that she could spend some time in a rural cottage to get some rest. She asked her husband to understand that she needed this time to herself and that she needed him to take care of things while she was gone.

And every single one of them gave her the help she needed.

Three months later, Gina’ s life was going significantly better. She and her husband had grown much closer. She no longer worked overtime every week, and in fact had become very protective of her family and alone time. Her energy returned. She lost weight. She quit smoking.

To bring about this change and allow herself to reach out, Klaver says that Gina had to embrace three virtues –

  • compassion, particularly for herself,
  • faith that if she asked for help at least some of the change for which she hoped would happen
  • and finally, gratitude for all she already had and for the help received from others so that those relationships could grow even stronger.
  • Asking for help had transformed her life in ways that going it alone never could have.

Compassion. Faith. Gratitude. Transformation.

Those sound like spiritual terms to me.

And it makes me believe that developing our willingness and capacity to ask for help when we need it is a spiritual endeavor.

Like many of our spiritual quests though, it takes intentional practice. We do not automatically get better at it.

Especially with asking for help, we need the practice, because most of us have never been taught how to go about asking for help. We have few if any models, stories or mythologies to follow.

For example, how many of you are familiar with the New Testament story about the Good Samaritan? (No, really, raise a hand if you are.)

Now, how many of you know the biblical story of Jairus?

How about the Canaanite woman?

Less of us are familiar with the latter two.

The Good Samaritan story is about offering help. The other two are about people who asked for help.

It is telling that the religious tale about offering help is in our psyches much more strongly than the stories about asking for help. Perhaps we need to tell and uphold those other stories more often.

In this religious community, we could do that, and we also could create new stories and practices affirming that developing our individuality and accepting communal support are not opposite ends of a duality – that we can help each other become our most whole selves and to be as self reliant as is healthy and possible given whatever our circumstances might be.

Church it seems to me is a great place within which we could create a loving environment, a beloved community that encourages and supports asking for help – a place where we can all help each other learn how to take the … expletive deleted … donuts.

Here is the process M. Nora Klaver suggest we practice regarding asking for help.

Before making a request for help, get clear on what the real need is. Make sure what would actually be helpful. Then, if the timing is not urgent, take a break first and engage in something that helps you find a greater sense of calmness. Then, set up a time to ask in person if at all possible. During the request, take a leap of faith that new paths will open up no matter what the response to the request, and then word the ask as simply as possible.

After the request, be grateful, listen intently and then express your gratitude no matter what the response. You will have something for which to be grateful. No matter what, you will learn more about your relationships, as well as the situations your friends and loved ones might be in themselves. Sometimes people want to help but cannot because they do not have the capability or are facing some big challenge themselves at the time. At the very worst, you might discover that a relationship is not what you thought it was or is in need of repair.

Most of the time though, people will want to help.

No matter what happens, new opportunities will appear to you, and you will have grown in compassion, gratitude and faith.

Asking each other for help requires that we have the courage to be vulnerable – to risk real human connection.

May the members of this church practice this together.

May this be a community of love and support that nurtures both asking for and offering help to one another.

May we walk in the ways of love together, giving and receiving of one another’ s unique gifts and abilities.

The song says, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

May we go even further.

May we proclaim together, “We’ re going to thrive with a little help from our friends, our families and this, our beloved religious community”.


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