Two are better than one,
because they have good return for their work.
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10
On the evening of September 11, 2001 my husband and I watched Gwen Ifill of PBS interview Mr. Rogers. Gwen was asking Mr. Rogers to give people advice about how to talk with their children about what had just happened.
That day we had watched images of commercial jets flying into the Twin Towers in New York City, eventually collapsing the enormous structures and killing thousands trapped inside. We were shocked. We were horrified. We were traumatized. And so were our nation’s children who saw these images playing over and over on television.
Mr. Rogers said that when he was a child and something very difficult happened, his mother would suggest that he notice all the helpers. And so one of the things he suggested that we do for our children (and ourselves) was to gently ask the question, “Have you seen a lot of helpers lately?”
A lot of helpers. That is what we need whenever we are experiencing something that is scary or that threatens to overwhelm us. We need a lot of helpers any time we are faced with a serious difficulty in life.
Helpers come in lots of forms. Family members. Friends. Professionals. Strangers. People close. People far away.
And the help they each offer is unique. Each one comes with their own special gift to give us. Some will be good listeners. Some will pray. Some will have experiences of their own to offer. Some will send cards. Others might email or phone. Some are skilled professionals who will treat the problem. They each come with their own precious gifts. Gifts that tell us that we matter, that we are not alone, that we are loved.
Our work is to receive these gifts of support and care. As simple as that sounds, it is often difficult to do. Receiving support and care from others requires honesty and humility. We cannot receive while we are pretending that we are fine. Receiving requires us to acknowledge our need for helpers.
In my roles as a nurse and as a therapist I am a professional helper. I know from personal experience that professional helpers are sometimes especially resistant to being on the receiving end of love and care. There are many reasons why it is difficult for professional helpers to stay open to receiving care. When we are in the role of helper we feel okay about ourselves. We may feel in control. We may feel competent or capable. All of these feelings are more pleasant than the feelings which come when we are needy or afraid.
It is not just professional helpers who have difficulty with receiving help from others. We all do. Whether we are a professional helper or not, the good feelings that come from giving and doing and looking good are easier for us—and less threatening to our pride. So, any of us can hide behind our giving and doing for others. And we can, tragically, do more harm than good when the primary drive behind our helping and giving and doing is to bolster our own sense of value.
Being on the receiving end of help and care is not easy for most of us because when we are in need we don’t feel in control, we don’t feel powerful, we feel that we don’t have anything to offer, or we experience ourselves as less than competent. Instead, we feel our need, our dependency on others, our powerlessness, our vulnerability.
Receiving may not be easy for all of these reasons. But receiving care and support from others is good for us. It offers us the gift of humility. And it offers us the opportunity to experience in practical ways that we are valued.
What is particularly significant is that this experience of being valued does not come because of something we are doing. The experience of being valued when we are most in need of support is the experience of being valued simply because we are. We matter. Others care about us.
This is a very powerful gift. It is a gift that gives us the strength we need to get through each day whatever the difficulty we are facing. Sometimes we will experience this strengthening spiritually, sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically.
While I waited in the preoperative area for my second surgery, I listened to music and took long, slow, easy breaths. My heart rate which is normally about sixty beats a minute was showing on the monitor as only forty eight beats per minute. So at a time when it is common to be anxious, the music and slow easy breathing and the prayers of many others were all keeping me in a peaceful place.
There were, however, a few moments before my husband was allowed to join me in the preoperative area during which my peaceful state was interrupted with a rush of anxiety that made me feel a bit dizzy. I suddenly experienced a need to have someone I knew and loved physically present with me.
When my husband was able to join me, he pulled up a chair next to the bed and took my hand. At that moment the peace returned and stayed. Even when he wasn’t actually holding my hand, when he was simply there with me, I felt physically supported and emotionally comforted.
Both of my surgeries took place during the Lenten season. Lent is the seven weeks between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—a time when I usually reflect with greater frequency on the gift of Jesus’ life and death. For the first time I felt like I got a small glimpse of what it might have meant to Jesus to have a few loved ones close by as he died. I suspect that he was deeply comforted by their presence. I imagine that he felt held, in some way, by being able to see their eyes and hear their voices.
It is hard to describe the physical comfort that comes from the quiet, loving presence of another person. When the surge of anxiety hit me before my husband joined me that day, I felt for an instant like I might somehow physically fly apart. It was a strange sensation. When my husband came and sat with me, I felt physically held together.
Experiences like this are, I think, a reflection of our deep connection with one another. None of us exists alone. None of us can live life alone. We need each other.
I felt such gratitude for every kind word and gentle touch offered by the many health care professionals I encountered. The smallest kindness can touch deep places inside us when we are so vulnerable.
I kept every card people sent me. I even kept a few voice mails of love and support. I knew that I needed to drink in these gifts. I needed to take in this sweet soul nurture from those who offered themselves to me at a vulnerable time.
My prayer is that the deeper opening that this crisis created in my heart will stay open. My prayer is that every day I will be freed to humbly, joyfully remember my need for the support and care of others. My prayer is that I will be given the grace to receive all the love and support that is offered to me each day, whatever the day may hold.
When you don’t know what to do…take in support.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What support have you been offered during your times of difficulty?
2. What is it like for you to take in that support?
3. What do you need to do to reach out for further support?