Receiving the Kindness of Strangers

“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.” -Brene Brown

On Thursday I was sitting with my young children in a roomful of people at the Hampton Inn. The baby was fussy and I was trying to soothe him while filling out some paperwork on my lap, not too concerned as my three-year-old complained that his tummy hurt. Thinking he was just hungry, I gave him some fruit snacks, which he held but wouldn’t eat. Suddenly I heard *that sound,* which every parent dreads. I jumped up, shouting “Oh no!” My little boy’s undigested lunch was everywhere: all over the plush chairs and carpet, on his sister’s lap, even on a library copy of Calvin and Hobbes. Everywhere except his own clothes, ironically enough! The people in the row behind us vacated their seats before I had even fully realized what had happened. (I sure hope none of them had been wearing nice shoes!) I just stood there not knowing what to do, for what seemed like a long time, although it was probably just half a minute. I hadn’t brought in my diaper bag or anything since it was just a short meeting, so I had nothing with which to clean the mess up. It was a strange, helpless moment.

While most people had cleared as far away from the smelly puddle as they could, a few of the other parents came up and offered me napkins and baby wipes. One lady asked if she could help in any way, and a guy gave me a vomit bag, in case little Toad threw up again. (Which he did. Twice.) I’m very grateful to these people. They didn’t have to help me; they didn’t know me, and they had their own kids with them. I wish I had more fully conveyed my gratitude to each of these people, but I don’t think it came across. I realized later that after having made eye contact while speaking to them, I had looked away quickly. I had felt so uncomfortable in the moment they were offering help. As I was doing my best to pick up the big chunks with paper towels someone had brought from the bathroom, a hotel employee came with soapy water and started scrubbing the carpet with a brush. I was down on the floor cleaning next to her, but I just couldn’t bring myself look at her or hardly speak to her because I was humiliated that she had to clean up my child’s disgusting mess. I could explain my feelings and behavior away by saying I was just flustered, or focused on cleaning up quickly, or concerned about my son, but I knew there was more to it and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I learned several things from this little experience. First, when your kid is complaining of an upset stomach, don’t just blow it off! Second, people are awesome. It’s always hopeful to see how readily people step up to help others out in times like these. That guy who gave me the vomit bag is a hero in my book. Third, I gained a new perspective on how it feels to be on the receiving end of help and dependent on strangers, and that our value and worthiness are permanent regardless of our level of need.

I’ve been in the position of being in need before, but rarely among no one but strangers who have no connection or obligation to me. It’s been common and natural to depend on the help of family to some extent, and even friends. A few years ago, while healing from an injured back from a fall on icy steps, my mobility was so limited that my husband had to help me sit down and stand up. When he was at work and my little Buddy, then less than two years old, shattered a glass on the tile floor, I called my neighbor to clean up the glass for me. While I felt reserved about asking her for help with such an urgent and unpleasant task, she was a good friend and we had a history of helping each other out, so it didn’t feel as uncomfortable as accepting help from strangers. And I certainly didn’t feel embarrassed about it.

So why did I feel so embarrassed in the vomit situation? These were people I’d probably never see again. Was it because I had shouted “Oh no!” so loudly in the quiet room? I’ve never really exercised much restraint when surprised or upset. I don’t think that was it. Was it because I thought they might judge me as a bad mom for bringing a sick kid out in public, or not being prepared with supplies for every eventuality, etc.? Not that, either, as this is just something that happens with kids, and we all know no one is to blame. I think I’m just not used to the uncomfortable position of being in need. I’ve always been very self-sufficient and was taught since I was a child that I had value when I was of help to others. So in a twisted way, if you follow that logic, then I don’t have value if I am in need of help from others. No one meant for me to internalize such a message, but I think I’ve been operating on this piece of bull-crap programming for a long time now.

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Although I haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn since I was a child, I still remember one part well because I was so baffled by it. The family in the book is very poor, yet they and nearly all their neighbors resist wealthier people’s efforts to be charitable to them. They see accepting handouts as a blow to their self-respect because they feel it’s their duty to provide for their own. When a rich girl makes a show of giving away one of her many beautiful dolls, on the condition that the recipient be a poor girl who shares her name, there are many girls named Mary who yearn to have that doll but refuse to go up and receive it. It’s too shameful and humiliating for them to admit that they are needy, even for so precious a prize. The girl in the book finally claims the doll, but then hides her away and never plays with her or even looks at her because that perfect doll reminds her of her humiliation. She feels less worthy, less valuable, than the pretty rich girl.

Most of us have been socialized to perceive ourselves as weak or “less-than” when we are in need. Being in need is a vulnerable position to be in; uncomfortable, to be sure, but being vulnerable is not weakness. We all need each other, and were designed to depend upon one another. Children and the elderly and infirm are naturally needy, but we don’t look down on them as having less value because of that. For some reason, in middle age we pride ourselves on our perceived self-reliance and independence from others. The ways we depend on others can be a lot more subtle and easily overlooked. We are wired to need love and connection with others, and not having that actually harms our health and shortens our lives. We must have need and be vulnerable if we are able to experience love and connection or have any relationships at all.

If we all need other people, why are we so reluctant to ask for and accept help? Along with the fear of being perceived as weak or less-than, I think part of it is that we fear rejection by others. Rejection is a phenomenon that exists totally inside our own heads. If we ask something of someone and he or she declines, we’re no better or worse off than we had been before having asked. The feeling of rejection only comes from the meaning we ascribe to the refusal. Clearly, it’s making something out of nothing.

As part of our major backyard landscaping project, my husband has just finished installing the irrigation system. Although we’re contracting out most of the other work, we had decided to do this portion ourselves. There came a point where it got to be too much work for one person to do alone, so we asked several friends, family members and neighbors for help. We are so grateful for the people who came to help; they did an awesome job and made a big difference. I’m also grateful for the kind intentions of those who communicated that they wanted to help but couldn’t. Although it was hot out there and the work was far from fun, what surprised me the most was the large number of people who either simply didn’t respond at all, or said they’d be happy to help but didn’t show up. It would have been easy to interpret this as rejection, but that is not a healthy way to see it. When I want to help others but am unable to do so, I don’t see myself as rejecting them; it’s just that circumstances create complications sometimes. And although this is rarely my experience, I can see how it might be easier to just say nothing than to try to find the words to explain what’s going on in a situation that makes both the requestor and the potential helper feel so vulnerable.

e8210-law-of-abundance-293x300Giving and receiving are what life and relationships are all about. It’s been helpful to me to see this as a cycle: as you give, it opens you up to be able to receive. And as you receive, you are then set up to be able to do more giving. If we get hung up on either the giving or receiving end, then progress is halted until we learn to more fully give or receive. (Here’s a previous post about this phenomenon.) My experience with the vomit showed me that it’s perfectly okay to be on the receiving end of help; that it is not a shameful or devaluing experience, but simply a part of life, a part that brings feelings of gratitude and joy. This give-and-receive cycle can keep going round and round, and expanding if we will let it, making us better people and improving others’ lives all the while.