“When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.” (Murray Powell)
What makes us turn away? In the past few months, as I have been diving head-first into the concepts of giving and kindness through the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge, this question has come up again and again in classrooms, within social media comments, through emails, in podcasts, and books I’ve read.
I have personally experienced this emotional withdrawal many times upon passing the outstretched discoloured fingers of panhandlers, tired bodies huddled together in sleeping bags, or vacant eyes and swinging arms in the street. I have often attributed my dissociated reaction to the guilt or shame I feel for all of the comforts and privilege I am blessed to experience and have. And, I am not alone! My friend, Chau, recently asserted and reinforced my feelings in her Facebook comment to me: “I find myself challenging myself to not only be kind but to give to those less fortunate [as a result of the challenge]. I’m not sure if I [was] ashamed of what I have and what the less fortunate don’t have, but giving to the panhandler on the median or even looking at them was difficult for me.” Even Bréné Brown, the famed TED-talker and researcher of shame and vulnerability, states in her book Rising Strong: “I’m not helping people enough. I feel shame about how much I have and how little I do, so I can’t look the folks I should be helping in the eye.”
As I dug deeper and examined this question further, I realized the emotional withdrawal has less to do with guilt or shame over what we have than about our value judgements about receiving. Brown explains, “I realized the real reason I look away is not my fear of helping others, but my fear of needing help.”
When I read that statement, it hit me like a punch to the gut. Not only does our culture discourage receiving (think of how difficult it is to receive and accept a compliment about our character, achievements or clothing without deflecting, when someone offers to pay for the bill at a restaurant, when someone offers you help in a time of need), but it values and rewards over-functioning independence. Brown continues, “We fall prey to the myth that successful people are those who help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.”
In her book, The Dance of Connection, Harriet Leaner explains that we all react to adversity in different ways. Some of us “under-function” and shut down, while others “over-function” and over-achieve, micro-manage, and do everything to appear in-control, even when we’re not.
As you might have guessed, I fall into the over-achiever camp, to my own detriment. When things go sideways, I find it incredibly challenging to be vulnerable, reach out and seek the help I so desperately need from those close to me. So, I frantically hold on to the need for certainty, control, and the illusion that “I’ve got it all together.”
This recent realization transported me back to an experience I had last winter. It should have been the happiest time: my children were healthy, my relationship was stronger than ever, and I was enjoying quality family time on Maternity leave. That Christmas holiday wound up being a defining low-point in my life. All that I thought I knew as TRUTH came crashing down, leaving me disoriented and lost.
One crisp December evening, my family and I headed to a friend’s family-friendly Christmas party. Upon entering their home, we kicked off our boots and hung our coats over chairs in the entryway. I sent my then-two-and-a-half –year-old to play with the big kids downstairs, while some of the ladies played pass-the-baby with my four-month-old son. Something had felt “off” that day. At the party, I remember pouring myself a glass of cold water from the tap and having to steady myself on the counter. The room was spinning, I was dizzy, and my stomach felt nauseated. Shaking the feeling off, blaming post-partum hormones, I kept quiet about and ignored the worsening symptoms as I tried to make small talk at the party and enjoy myself. Finally, as I was heading downstairs to check on my daughter, I slipped and caught myself on the banister. I clung to it, feeling like a sailor on a rough voyage as the stairwell spun. I was doing everything within my power to not be sick. Soon after, I quickly found my husband and declared that I needed to go home immediately.
That night, the symptoms continued. As I lay in bed, completely incapacitated, the ceiling spun in circles and did not cease. I wound up going to the Emergency Room. My husband called in reinforcements: my sister, Kelly, my sister-in-law, and my friend, Ruth, flew into helping mode. Meals were made, children were cared for, and my house was cleaned. Still nursing my 4-month-old son, I had to pump bottles for him throughout the night in the ER, while doctors ran tests and machines beeped, so that my husband could feed our little guy who was still waking multiple times through the night.
That week, depending heavily on my family and loved ones, I spent my time in and out of doctor’s offices, the ER, and physiotherapist offices trying to get to the bottom of my worsening condition. I had MRI’s, CT scans, and neurologist appointments. I had to call friends for favours, rides, and meals. The professionals finally ruled out the scary stuff, and a week or so later I was diagnosed with severe Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). I should have been thrilled, but when the neurologist announced that there is no cure for BPPV and some severe cases could last months, my heart sank.
Suddenly, I felt exposed and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Fear paralyzed my body and my mind started racing. Months? I couldn’t drive until the symptoms got better. I could barely walk down the hallway of my home without bumping into walls. I certainly couldn’t care for my children adequately. I blinked back tears. I had already depended heavily on those close to me, how much more could I ask? My sister had become the primary care-giver during the time my husband was at work for a solid week while I lay stuck in bed. Even after the birth of my two children, I had been up and walking within hours. The core of my identity rests on my independent nature. And here I was, more dependent than I had ever been.
I was not comfortable with being in need. I was not accustomed to being out of control. I was not used to asking for help. It shook me to the core of my soul.
That Christmas, I spent most of the day in bed, putting on a brave face and taking part in gift-opening. It was the first year that we did not attend the family dinner. I felt disappointed and frustrated.
Eventually, within three weeks, the symptoms decreased. Through the amazing care of my General Practitioner and wonderful physiotherapist, I was symptom-free a month and a half later.
Looking back on this time, I realize I learned a lot about myself. The experience had taught me how human I was. It made me acknowledge the precarious nature of our health and wellness. I also realized how much I take for granted. I am a very independent and self-sufficient person, something to which I have grown accustomed. I had placed so much value on having it all figured out, being the helper, on not needing anyone. But, “when you attach value to giving help, you attach value to needing help.”
It took me a long time to dig myself out of that dark place. Longer than I have admitted to a lot of people close to me. Experiencing gratitude for what I have, brought me back to myself, day-by-day. Service to others, knowing that we all find ourselves in need from time-to-time, also pushed me beyond the confines of my mind.
Through this journey, I’ve gained compassion for myself. When I’m feeling sad, I tend to reach out more quickly to friends or family members who will reinforce that I am enough, whether I am able to offer help or whether I require it, whether I achieve or fall on my face, whether I am feeling happy or defeated. All of me is worthy. All of us are worthy. You are worthy.
When we accept humanity for what it is, good, bad and ugly, we accept the parts of ourselves that we instinctively want to reject. I think, ultimately, that is the message I wish to convey with the Small Act Big Impact Kindness challenge. I seek authentic human connection with those around me and want to inspire others to seek the same because I believe that we can make the world a better place, one positive connection at a time. And as Brown states, “Connection doesn’t exist without giving and receiving. We need to give and we need to need.”
So, with that in mind, if you tend to be what Adam Grant would describe as a “giver,” make sure you allow yourself the opportunity to receive kindness and even actively seek help from those you love and trust when you are feeling emotionally fragile. It’s a simple idea, but it’s not an easy one to execute. Practice the art of receiving. It’ll make you a more whole-hearted giver.