I heard the unmistakable clatter of crutches falling down the steps. Halfway through rinsing out coffee cups, I froze and listened. The images of metal rods and jagged bones poking out of skin raced through my head. Hurrying to the door, I saw my roommate sitting on the bottom step next to a huge basket of laundry and his crutches. He grinned sheepishly as I tried to process what had happened. He'd been going down the stairs on his butt dragging the basket behind him.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Why didn't you just ask me for help?”
“I wanted to do it by myself,” he admitted. We both recognized the primal need in his statement — how it was both childish and of the greatest importance. We've all been there. We've all been frustrated by our perceived weaknesses right from the first time, as toddlers, we pushed our parents' hands away and demanded that we could do it. Our culture rewards independence and finds any sort of dependence, beyond childhood, pathetic. We fight against our human nature — our need to have the time, support, and patience to develop. We want to be done, to be there, to be the expert. We hate being the beginner so much so that we avoid trying things we know we won't excel in.
One morning in yoga, I realized I'd picked up every available prop and carried them all back to my mat. I'd come so far from the days were I avoided using blocks. I wanted to do it myself, to make every pose look as perfect as I could, even with my prosthetic leg. I didn't want to be pitied or helped. So, I did poses completely wrong in an effort to look right. Picking up every prop was my greatest sign of progress to date. I'd reached a place of making the poses work for me instead of contorting myself into the service of a pose.
Working as a volunteer educator for a teen suicide hotline, I've gone through training about how asking for help is the bravest thing we can do. As both an English and yoga teacher, I know this statement is more than just lip service. The students who ask for help learn. Those who put their effort into hiding the fact that they don't understand are forced to make the same mistake over and over again. The strange thing about asking for help is that it requires us to take a huge amount of responsibility for our lives. We have to acknowledge where we are and take stock of the situation. Then, we have to understand ourselves enough to explain our needs and goals. People who ask for help are ready to do the hard work of changing, healing, and letting go.
After my dad returned from his second tour in Iraq, he talked about how he never wanted to end up like his mother in a nursing home. I think part of him believed he'd die for his country — on his feet and bravely fighting. Yet, the idea of being a “burden” was unacceptable, humiliating. His comments hurt because I spent many years in the hospital with bone cancer. At the life stage where I was supposed to be newly independent, I was being bathed by my mom and later carried to the bathroom by my husband. Did my dad think my life was any less important and valuable in the times when I couldn't even walk? Of course he didn't. We are always harshest on ourselves. Still, what counts as a “good life?"
Friends use the words “lame” or “gimp” around me, then get embarrassed when I point out those words apply to me. They're quick to clarify they don't think of me “that way.” They're missing the realization that we're all fragile. Still, we insist on believing we can build ourselves into being self-sufficient islands.
Here's the tough news: your heart will be broken, your muscles will tear, you'll be let go from your job, you will lose and lose and lose no matter how many times you tell your reflection that you're a winner. Let this truth build in you a desire for compassion. You're the homeless man on the street, the mother with the sick kid, the drug-addicted teen. Despite doing everything right, you're still infertile or divorced or ill or broke. Give yourself compassion. Let go of pride.
You need support. Like everyone else. Asking requires honesty, acceptance, and humility. When someone else makes a request, realize your job is to be like a yoga block — give just enough support to make the real work possible. Give them room to be flawed and human even as they stretch toward growth.