Alison Bonds Shapiro M.B.A.

Healing Into Possibility

Illusions of Independence

I would do almost anything not to "be a burden."

Posted Feb 18, 2010

Our lives are woven together. As much as I enjoy my own company I no longer imagine I can get through a single day, much less all my life completely on my own.    Even if I am on retreat on the mountain for the weekend, I am eating food someone else has grown, living in a house someone else has built, wearing clothes someone else has sewn from cloth woven by others, using electricity someone else is distributing to my house. Evidence of interdependence is everywhere. We are on this journey together. Knowing this interdependence is true is great in principal, but what did it mean when I was ill and needed help?

I remember, as I was growing up, being carefully taught that independence, not inter-dependence, was everything. "Make your own way." "Stand on your two feet." or my mother's favorite admonition when I was face to face with consequences of some action: "Now that you have made your bed, lie on it!" Total independence is a dominant theme in our culture. I imagine that what my parents were trying to teach me was to take responsibility for my actions and my choices. But the teaching was shaped by our cultural images and instead I grew up believing that I was supposed to be completely "independent" and consequently became very reluctant to ask for help.

I would do almost anything not to "be a burden" and not require any help from anybody.

When I became ill my illusions of total independence vanished in an instant. All of a sudden I had to face the fact that I could do nothing, not even sit up, without someone else's intervention. I tried to fight the knowledge in my mind because of what I had been taught, but my body knew. Our bodies hunger for the reassurance and the help - the acknowledgement of connection. Our bodies know that all of us are intertwined in the dance of life.

How was I going to convince my mind of what my body knew? Without giving up the desire to rehabilitate and recover as much function as I could, how was I going to learn to accept help? And even more risky, ask for it? Accepting help and coming to understand my own personal interdependence was not an easy journey. The illusions were hard to let go of. I had been carefully taught.

I began with speaking up about what I didn't want. That's not the same thing as complaining or it doesn't have to be. There is a way to voice a "complaint" coupled with a recommendation for change that makes it not a "complaint." Part of the difference is tone, but most of it is intention. If I tell you what doesn't work and suggest what might, I am, in effect, making a request. A request is a form of asking for help.

When the nurse moved the little tape recorder I had worked so hard to put where I had a hope of retrieving it with my very limited mobility, I had to learn to say: "I cannot reach that when you move it. If you put it back where I had it, I can get it when I need it." Sounds simple. It wasn't. At the same time I was speaking, I was acknowledging my interdependence since when she put it out of reach there was literally no way I could get it by myself.

But, to my surprise, this worked well. I could reach the tape recorder and the nurse seemed pleased to do what I asked. Since I survived that limited form of requesting help, I tried venturing out and asking for something I wanted with no "complaint" attached. I asked my son to bring me some pants I could pull on that didn't require any fastening. Asking my son was pretty safe. He was obviously trying to help me. But this asking brought another discovery. It was actually easier for my son if I asked him for something specific. Then he did not have to wonder what I needed.

I began to realize that not asking for help is, in fact, selfish. I love to help people. I do it all the time. If I don't let them help me back, I am not allowing them the same satisfaction I enjoy. You could even say that I am, in a way, disempowering them. "Proving" that their help doesn't matter. They want to help me. I don't do them any favors with my fierce independence. Learning this lesson has allowed me once and for all to see and acknowledge with my mind, my heart and my body that my life really is a part of a larger whole.