I was about seven years old when my parents discovered that I was born with very little vision in my right eye. My left eye, it turns out, did the work for both of them. My mother was panicked when she found out and took me to every eye doctor she could find in the hopes of a treatment, operation, or cure. I don’t remember understanding much during those difficult times except that there was something terribly wrong with me that upset my mother. She eventually found a doctor at the Bellevue Hospital eye clinic who gave me “eye treatments” that, in part, involved wearing a patch over my left eye to force my right eye to see better. While wearing the eye patch, there were difficult and frustrating tasks like reading, tracing shapes, and using different machines, all geared to strengthen the vision in my right eye. One machine had a soldier on the left and a guard house on the right, and the task was to move the handles together until the soldier was in the guard house. I couldn’t see the guard house clearly enough, which ultimately made me feel even worse about having something wrong with me.
Of course my vision issues led to learning problems and, again, no one helped me understand the connection between the two. This made me feel even worse because I now had two problems. My mother was resourceful at finding tutors to help me with reading and with homework. Even though most of the helpers were nice to me, I felt inadequate: a constant, overwhelming burden to my parents.
Accepting help as a child was a necessity because I was ashamed and embarrassed by what I was struggling with. Eventually I came to equate receiving assistance with something rather pathetic. My attitude about receiving help hasn’t changed until recently; however, what did change some years ago was my self-image. I was able to meet the challenges of life such as school, career, and living on my own. And though I no longer felt pathetic, for a long time, accepting help still implied admitting weakness. I have accepted help over the years, but have often felt compelled to return the favor somehow. Before I owned a car there were times that I would get a ride to wherever I was going. I made it mandatory that I pay for gas or tolls, in order to balance the give/take exchange. It embarrassed me to be on the receiving end without reciprocating. On some deeper level, I understood that it was my need to prove something to myself, and it was my issue alone because I don’t think anyone else saw it as tit-for-tat in any way.
In time, I also became curious about others’ views on accepting help. My husband eagerly accepts help because he sees it is an indication of how much he is loved and cared for. One of my friends is reluctant to accept help from her family because she is worried that the task she needs assistance with will be too much for them. They are more than willing to help, though, so it turns out that each person is thinking of what would be helpful to the other without actually talking about what is needed. It seems as if it’s not uncommon to assume we know what is helpful to someone else without actually talking about it. One example that comes to mind is when I worked as a school social worker. Parents, thinking they were being helpful, were sometimes too quick to help their children get dressed so that they wouldn’t be late for school, instead of teaching them how to dress themselves and therefore learn time-management skills.
Accepting help became an issue when I was diagnosed with cancer, which occurred at the same time that COVID-19 invaded our world. It was no longer safe to do many of the tasks we were used to doing on our own. Shopping became a huge obstacle for two reasons: first, my husband and I are both in the high-risk category, making it unsafe for us to do our own shopping; secondly, because suddenly items like cleaning supplies and paper goods became difficult to find. Receiving help became essential for survival. My stepdaughter would buy us supplies or give us what we needed from her own pantry. Her generosity was and continues to be a beautiful thing but it initially made me uneasy. I also needed assistance getting to the cancer center for my chemotherapy treatments. I couldn’t drive or take a car service so needed assistance getting there. I was amazed by how many people were so generous and willing to help. Both family and friends would change their schedules, without question or hesitation, just to help me.
This time, learning to accept help started to feel different for me because not only did I need the assistance but I also learned that those who willingly help do so out of a desire to reach out, connect, and in fact be helpful. While some people who are emotionally needy seem to have difficulty thinking of other people and being helpful, because they think they need all their energy for themselves, there are other people whose baskets are full, so to speak, and just want to share their wealth. Many people do good deeds because it provides a close connection to God, and kindness to others is seen as God’s work. This is important to one of my dear friends but she also says she loves to help people because it makes her feel good.
Spiritual teachers talk about how we are composed of body and soul. We are physical beings with the task of functioning productively in the world we live in. We use our intellect to help us find ways to be innovative, successful, and useful. We also live with ego, which in part leads to the feeling of satisfaction with our accomplishments, but can also breed issues of pride, envy, jealousy, insecurity, and resentment, which often creates conflict. Our souls, however, are connected to a higher power, God, and a universal energy where unconditional love exists. When we can respond to life’s challenges from our soul’s or a spiritual perspective, it becomes a heartwarming experience for both the giver and the receiver. It becomes a beautiful exchange. In my own life, I began to look forward to my rides to and from chemotherapy because of the love I received and was able to give in return. It was such a natural and joyous experience going to and from chemotherapy with people I love; the middle part, actually receiving chemotherapy, almost seemed like the least important part of my day.
When we love freely, there is an unconditional generosity that co-exists. We are sharing God’s gift to us with others. The sense of meaning it contributes to our lives is profound because it helps us connect to people on a deeper spiritual level. Life is best lived with an abundance of love and kindness. I have found that learning to accept help has nothing to do with neediness. In fact, my outlook on needing help is changing from something that was once negative to a meaningful opportunity to connect with others. I still think of reciprocating acts of kindness, as there are countless people who give of themselves so easily whom I am grateful for; however, I no longer believe I have to give back as some sort of quid-pro-quo. Instead, I “want” to because I want to share the love that is in my heart, which makes me feel very much alive.