Such an innocuous phrase. I use it all the time.
“Do you need help with that?”
“No, no. I’m fine.”
It’s how I was raised. Asking for help, according to my father, was being dependent. Accepting help, according to my mother, was taking advantage of other people’s good nature. As a result, I don’t need help with anything. I can do it all myself. And if I can’t, I'll find a work around or I decide it doesn’t really need doing. Anything but admit,
“Yeah. I could use a little help here.”
It was relatively late in life that I realized that asking for and/or accepting help was not or need not be an imposition on others. It was, or could be, a validation of friendship.
That insight came to me at some point when the mother of a friend died, and I was asked, along with another friend, to help sort out her mother’s house. I did not feel, as my mother had often implied others felt, imposed upon. Instead, I felt gratified, honored to be asked. It was a request that only a friend could make of another friend.
I was thinking about this recently watching another episode of my latest Netflix obsession, Supernatural. It is, on the face of it, a silly show. Two brothers born into a family of “Hunters,” people who hunt the monsters that walk among us: demons, werewolves, vampires, and the like. But it’s just my sort of story, told with occasional humor, one particular piece of eye-candy, and monsters. I am the woman who read Bram Stoker’s Dracula at age 13 and have been in love with the genre ever since.
But one thing that I, along with reviewers from A.C. Club, have had about enough of is each brother’s unwillingness to admit weakness or accept help of any kind. Not only does it make for entirely unwitty dialog, it also perpetuates the myth of the solitary hero, the cowboy, the rogue cop, the arrogant surgeon, all of whom step in at the last minute to save the day. All by themselves. Alone.
By this time (I’m 10 seasons in, having just discovered it earlier this year) the brothers have been through hell (literally) numerous times and carry both physical and psychological scars, and yet still whenever one asks the other one, “How are you?” the answer is still, inevitably, “I’m fine.”
That answer was okay in the beginning. We don’t expect characters to be wise from the get-go. Wisdom is something they must learn. But these characters never learn. And I must forgive them, because I was in my 60’s before I learned that asking for and accepting help is a gesture of love, of inclusion. It’s telling someone that you can count on them. It’s feeling counted on. Counted in.
So here is where I extend that metaphor, if metaphor it is, to the American psyche. Going it alone has become an American ideal. Remember when America piled on Obama for saying, “You didn’t build that.” I knew what he meant, but it seemed that half the country took umbrage at the idea that nobody does anything worth doing alone. And that idea – ideal, if you will – is promulgated night after night on our TV’s in shows like Supernatural. Dean Winchester has even cold-cocked his brother to make certain that nobody would be there to watch his back. It does always lead to trouble, so maybe there’s a lesson there, but not until after we’ve gotten that heroic vision of Dean marching alone into the monster’s lair thinking that he’s protecting his brother.
And I’m wondering if this has anything to do with American resistance to things like universal healthcare, its antipathy toward communal enterprises, or love affair with the good-guy-with-a-gun fantasy.
Because I still think hard before asking anyone for help, asking myself if there isn’t any way I can do it alone. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with self-reliance. But self-reliance isn’t always to be relied upon, and we should all should make room for other options.
“Need any help with that?”
“Yeah, I could use a little help here.”
Asking for help and accepting it brings us together. Builds communities. Cements friendships.
It’s at the core of civilization.