Asking for and giving help: we should do it more.

by Claire McCarthy on January 22, 2013

The other day, a colleague sent me an idea for a blog post. A friend of hers is newly pregnant and feeling yucky, and often wishes that someone would give up a seat for her on the T—but since she doesn’t have a visible belly yet they don’t, and she doesn’t feel comfortable asking. She’d heard that in London they have buttons that pregnant women can wear identifying them as pregnant even before they show—maybe I could write about that idea?

Here’s what I’d rather write about: I think she should ask for a seat.

I’ve been pregnant a bunch of times, and have ridden the T plenty during those pregnancies. Sure, there were times I wanted to sit (and, by the way, having a big belly doesn’t mean anyone will offer you a seat—once the only person who did was as pregnant as I was!). But there were also lots of times when I was totally fine standing. More to the point, there have been lots of times when I wasn’t pregnant when I really wanted a seat—because I was exhausted, or sick, or feeling sad.

Sometimes, we just need help. And we should ask for it.

It’s been my experience that when I’ve asked for help from strangers, I’ve gotten it. I don’t ask often, but sometimes I just can’t manage alone. Sometimes it’s little stuff, like when I’m lost, or can’t lift something, or have no clue what to buy at the hardware store. Sometimes it’s car stuff—I’ve needed help twice changing a tire, and a few times with parallel parking (I’m a terrible parker—my kids can attest to that). Sometimes I’ve needed help when I’ve been out with the kids—like with getting a stroller down the stairs, retrieving a rolled-away toy or with holding a baby briefly while I put a Band-Aid on a scraped knee.

It’s also been my experience that in the vast majority of cases, people have been happy to help. Think about it: it feels good to help. It’s nice to think of ourselves as helpful people—it makes us proud. On a deeper level, I think we all like feeling connected to one another. There is something right and true about helping someone, especially someone you don’t know. Because when you help them, it’s purely for the sake of helping.

I don’t ask for help every time I need it, though—that’s what I thought about as I read my colleague’s email. Like everyone else, I feel intimidated. I think that my needs aren’t enough to bother anyone about. Sometimes (especially when I need help with children) I worry that the person I’m asking might be bad or dangerous, even though I know the odds of that are small. Mostly, like everyone else, I just feel strange and afraid breaching the invisible barriers that separate us.

And that’s sad. Both that there are barriers and that we are afraid to breach them.

So instead of buttons identifying us as pregnant or otherwise in need of help, I think we should practice asking for help. We can start small, like by asking for directions (although the GPS devices on our phones are rapidly making that need obsolete) or asking someone to hold the door for us when our arms are full. Baby steps are fine.

And at the same time, we should practice offering help. Hold the door without being asked (kids love doing this, for some reason—it’s great to watch the smiles they get). Give up your seat on the T to someone older or pregnant, or someone who looks tired or sad. Help with strollers and packages. Grab the rolling toys and balls and get them back to their owners. Stick a quarter in an expired parking meter. Shovel the stairs of someone who is elderly—or away for the weekend.

I bet it will feel good. I don’t think it will change the world (although who knows—if enough of us do it, we might just start a movement.) But it might change you. And it might make all the difference for someone else.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Let’s breach the barrier. Let’s ask for—and give—help.

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