My son sat brooding at the computer, trapped between a call from the school letting me know that he would fail both English and History if he didn’t turn in his junior research paper and a mother who, for crying out loud, is a writer. Resentment emanated from him in sharp breaths exploding without warning, his body thrust back into the chair, and angry pronouncements about how stupid and pointless this all was.
At first I addressed motivation, kindly describing the many ways that adequately expressing ourselves benefits us throughout our lives, explaining why teachers would ask this of students and what a powerful individual he will be with both all his present talents and a well-developed ability to communicate. It made little impression on his frustration. Then I targeted the importance to his future of graduating from high school – something I never thought I would be worried about with one of my children. No effect. Then I talked about character, how as one of the few things that rises with us, it is formed by our ability to do things we don’t want to do. He arched his eyebrows at me in, well, arched silence. I sat cross-legged on my bed with my knitting in my lap and just prayed to know how to help him.
He reached up to rub one eye with his finger, and though it was likely just a reflex or an itch, my mind leapt to an image of him wiping away a tear, and my eyes were opened to a boy who doesn’t know how to express himself in writing. I thought back on how when we write notes to each other for a birthday or event, his are short. He expresses himself in action, by serving, not through words. I couldn’t remember a single writing assignment he’d brought home with pride over the years. I realized that I was creating as much frustration by attempting to address the wrong causes as the paper was.
He got his paper written. In my old English teacher days, I would probably frown on how it happened. I read the sources along with him. We talked about them together. I made suggestions about an outline from our discussion, and because it didn’t make sense to him, I wrote an outline on a post-it note beside the computer. We began with a thesis statement, that I ended up writing for him after we had discussed it thoroughly. I sat on the bed and knitted for hours while he struggled, sentence after sentence, sometimes ending up typing verbatim something that I said. I can’t count how many times he, near tears, said “I don’t know how to put this in words.” We talked about character and how it isn’t having the same gifts someone else has, it’s doing what you can with the ones you have. I’m not worried about his character.
His paper is written. I provided most of the “writing.” I’m okay with that. I realized this weekend that my son has been building an educational structure, and every time it came to this particular section, he skipped it and took his lumps. Now he’s close to the top and there’s a whole section missing from his building. I have to take responsibility for that too. I could have helped my struggling son a long time ago and saved him a lot of grief and self-recrimination, as well as some false decisions about himself and his abilities. I asked him if he wanted to be a firefighter because he liked firefighting, or because he didn’t think he could make it as an engineer. The response broke my heart.
Why didn’t he ask for help, I asked. He just shrugged his shoulders, not knowing how to put that into words either. Fiercely independent, one to discover how things work by diving in and trying, he isn’t one to ask for help with much of anything. Because he didn’t, he suffered the mistaken idea that he lacked something vital that others somehow simply had, and allowed his vision of himself to be diminished. Likely others added their views of his deficient character, everyone believing that they knew what was going on. Even I, his mother, the person who knows him better than anyone else on earth, assumed that it was a motivation or an understanding issue rather than a skills issue.
As an independent western culture, we are not terribly kind to people who ask for help. They are deficient, lazy, uninspired, or simply scary, because if we give help, they will become dependent and then lean so heavily on us that we will be compromised. “Help!” is a very scary thing to hear. Having to ask for help is a very scary place to be. We join that very scary group of people who compromise the comfort and security of the rest of society.
So we don’t ask. We believe untrue things about ourselves. We limit our potential. We get defensive about what we don’t know, devalue it, make fun of it. It’s a leap of faith to ask for help. It’s also a leap of faith to give help, to have faith in people to learn, grow, change, and become independent. It’s a leap of faith in ourselves that we have enough to give to help someone else without drowning ourselves.
I recently discovered that I can’t ask people to give to those who need help until I give to those who would give first. I was assuming that those who look like they’re doing well, are, and are feeling confident about it. Most people aren’t confident enough to sacrifice for unseen others. We have to build that confidence first before we can build the confidence of those who are more obviously struggling. As part of my own lessons, I’ve had to ask for help and somehow maintain my confidence in my own capacities. It has been very good for me.
When people ask for help, the barriers all go down. Ideas begin flowing, resources are willingly shared, holes get fixed and so do people, and not just the ones who asked. We are as unwilling to offer help as we are to ask for it, and so we are kept separate from one another, but when someone asks, good things happen. My son is going to learn to compose, because now that he has asked, I will teach him, and as his false beliefs about himself fade, the horizons of his potential will expand. I think, after this past year, I will spend more time trying to determine what needs to happen and less how I can do it alone, and I will ask for help sooner and more often. I will look for better ways to ask people if they would like help – maybe finding a way to offer so that’s it’s easier for them to take that leap of faith.
Another magic three words besides ‘I love you’ may be equally important. I Need Help. Does it make you cringe?