I’m that girl, the one everybody goes to when there’s a crisis. I’m there, sorting it, finding out, lending a hand, raising money. That’s me. That was me.
Then, one day, I was the crisis.
And Then She Fell is the soft title of a memoir of recent events that I never plan to write. I keep making up titles for the not-book, though. It helps me try to make sense of senseless things. It’s also kind of fun, and I need fun.
When you are in crisis, many, many people leave your life very, very quickly. Especially if you were that girl — you know, The Olivia Pope of Not-Greenwich Village. This is all right. In fact, it’s very fine. Those people weren’t around for the right reasons. They were around because you were a helper, and guess what? Now, you’re not. Now, you’re someone who needs help.
I’ve read a lot about learned helplessness, but I can’t say I’ve read anything about learned helpfulness, which is how I would self-diagnose my predisposition. It’s world-shattering to go from being the person with more energy than everyone else — who says yes to everything, who finds the barn and the piano and the singers and the dancers and the choreographer for the show in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, just for fun — to being the person who measures energy in teaspoonfuls, doles out no’s like beads at Mardi Gras, and can’t do for herself.
There’s a big difference between finding yourself at the opposite extreme of life, and acknowledging that state and behaving accordingly. The old impulses are still very much intact; each time the body rejects them, it’s a challenge to the psyche. Creating new behaviors around this new set of needs takes time and crashes against resistance. After I fell, the phone still rang for a while. Could I volunteer for this youth event, could I share my contacts for that city? I’d respond that I was recovering from an injury and was not able to help with anything right now. The standard response was a rushed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know” and a super quick hang-up. I only heard from any of those people again when they felt enough time had passed that I might be back to being the helping verb they loved so much.
Once I was able, I reached outward to friends and community. When you’re in crisis, the responses can be so varied. People run, hide, disappear, and freak out. People over-help and become Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle. There are people who turn into secret helping agents and wonderful people who support with presence and care. New people pop up who share similar journeys and offer coping mechanisms and gentle understanding. Along this path, I stumbled, heavily re-evaluated, looked back far too often, wondered about the ‘what went wrong’ and the ‘will anything ever get right.’
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Telling the origin story of pain can be draining and re-traumatizing. Eventually, I developed a kind of coded response to the How are you? question. “Things are tough,” I’d say, hoping to not have to go into it.
One day, in response, someone said, “How can I help?” The moment I first heard these four words, every door and window in the world opened. They were the most powerful words I’d ever heard. I’ve heard them a few times since, and the same exhale occurs — the one that makes you wonder how long you’ve been holding your breath.
I wish the world knew what it was like to be alone, in pain, negated — and then to receive these liberating words. I wish the world knew that the people who say them don’t always seem extra-special and aren’t always people who are close to you or know you well. They are not of one type or age or background, but they all bring magic. Sometimes, they are people who have suffered, and sometimes, they are not. They are individuals who intuitively create flow and move energy, people who are willing.
Help isn’t a favor; it’s a shared experience. It’s an intimacy. It’s how connection is created. As a nomad, I received thousands of little kindnesses along my route. Each one bonded me to someone who might have been a stranger twenty-four hours earlier, but will never be again. These encounters felt serendipitous. They recalled the ancient traditions of sustaining those on pilgrimages, feeding troubadours and poets as they told tales and learned stories to take away to the next village. These exchanges are how our stories are carried one to another, how we come to know one another’s joys and pains, oppressions and struggles. This is the true currency we all share.
When you think your story might be over, in that dead-end place, there are plenty of people who will confirm for you that this is so. No one need add to the brain’s cacophany, but still, they do. Then, there are those who cannot deal with bad things happening and insist you embrace positive thinking to keep them in your life. They will badger you to see optimism as a cure-all, blatantly disregarding how much optimism it takes just to keep enduring the state you’re in.
The outliers are the ones who know just what to say. It seems so simple — How can I help? — but it unfurls like a revelation.
How can I help? is the opposite of Let me know if you need anything. Although most people intend it to be helpful, Let me know shuts me down. How can I help? creates space where there was entrenchment. Let me know pushes urgency away and means I have to initiate actions that sometimes feel close to impossible. Let me know if you need anything tells me my story is not being acknowledged. It causes psychic angst and plays out as an abdication of our shared responsibilities for one another. It’s an unwillingness to witness and respond. It makes me invisible.
How can I help? says I am visible. It says someone has listened and acknowledged my pain. They may not fully understand it, or know how to fix it, but How can I help? means they don’t have to. They are offering their physicality, their access and resources, their voices or minds to improve the situation. By offering with open heart and hand, they build trust, respect boundaries, and empower me. They see me as whole. No one is trying to fix me, make me part of an agenda, or parcel out just enough to keep me broken.
At best, human interaction is like jazz. Louis Armstrong said, “What we play is life.” Jazz is a life form. It is the intuitive collaboration that comes from nurturing relationships with sound, rhythm, instruments, and players. It is about listening, not only to instruments and voices, but to the inner impulse that prompts the play. Everybody gets a turn to shine, and everyone gets a chance to hang back. When the music escalates to new heights, it is from the collective building together.
That’s what life is. When the trumpet testifies, and the bass player hangs a few notes underneath, that’s the listening, the support system, the How can I help?
Despite our tendencies to try to micromanage our lives and over-control situations, no human is ever in total command of self or the world. We feel on top of things sometimes, and we like it, but life can just as quickly come crashing down, slide out from underneath, toss us over the top, or numb us. Those times are when we have to acknowledge that we are not in charge, that we need other humans, and that this is okay.
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Vulnerability can breed contempt, though, sometimes for self, and sometimes from others who prey on its emotionally charged energy. Inside that vulnerable state, that state of inner emergency, How can I help? is an out-stretched hand, a bridge back to breath. It is never a false promise, a vain platitude, or a quid pro quo. Language is faulty, often clunky, and can lose subtlety across regions and cultures — and yet, I’ve never heard those four words and not felt supported.
Asking is tough for me. I tend to prefer to work things out on my own — to say yes to myself rather than having to battle through someone else’s potential no — but I never fear asking something of someone who’s asked how they can help. I know they are willing partners in my well-being, no matter the particular task at hand. When I am over-burdened with body, self, survival, and obligation, they lighten the load. This is the greatest gift anyone can give.
If you ever encounter someone carrying far too much weight, if you think you are able, open your heart wide enough to say these four words: How can I help? They make miracles.
[Headline image: The photograph features two people, shown from the back and from the waist down. They are holding hands. The person on the left is a dark-skinned person wearing a red top and billowing yellow skirt. The person on the right is a light-skinned person wearing a white flowered dress. In the background is a sky at sunset with yellow, orange, and black visible.]
What a well-worded essay. As someone with terminal cancer, this resonated strongly with me. Of particular familiarity was the passage about people who “insist you embrace positive thinking.” Some things in life suck, and pretending they don’t suck doesn’t make them suck any less. (How’s that for well-worded?) I hope that you do write that book – I would love to read it. Just do it soon, OK? 🙂
Thank you for your comment, Cheryl! It was well-worded and much appreciated. Writing lots of pieces of what maybe could be a book. I’ll do my best for you! Take good care.