I had a friend in college who wasn’t from the United States, so as a part of new student orientation, the school held an information session on basic American norms and etiquette for him and all of the international students. They covered the basics about American culture like how it may be more individualistic, private, and informal than their home countries, but what I found interesting and funny was that the staff felt the need to interpret a few common American sayings and formalities for the international students. They said things like, when an American says, “Make yourself at home,” it is just an invitation to sit down and relax, and not an invitation to look through personal things or help yourself to anything in the refrigerator. Or how “Let’s do lunch sometime” is someone just being nice and polite, and the person may not actually ever make plans to go eat with you. Or, my favorite, that when an American asks “How are you doing?” you are only supposed to answer by saying “good,” regardless of how you are actually doing. This is a greeting, not an actual question. On one hand, it was funny to imagine the miscommunications that taking these conventions literally could lead to, but what really stuck with me was how often we might say things that we don’t really mean, and without even realizing it.
I think about this whenever I encourage people to “please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” I’ve tried many different ways to reword it, but it always feels like another convention, just another nice thing you’re supposed to say, whether or not you even mean it.
When we face uncertainty, a lot of us (including myself) feel better if there’s something we can “do” about it. I think this is why toilet paper and other household essentials flew off grocery store shelves at the beginning of this pandemic. It wasn’t reasonable, but it gave people something to do to prepare for the unknown. Or, for others of us, we want to jump in and help someone, somewhere, with anything, so that we might be useful and helpful. Of course it’s good to do what we can and help where we can, but there’s a part of hospitality that too easily gets overlooked; receiving it. Our distance and isolation have helped us to see even more deeply than usual how we are not and cannot be completely self-sufficient, regardless of how ideal we are told it would be.
As this pandemic and our safety precautions stretch on, so will the challenges we face and the areas of help that each of us need. We each need to “do our part,” but we owe each other (and ourselves) the gift of asking for what we need. If we are only willing to give, to help, to do, it doesn’t help create community and relationship— we just maintain the status of the “giver” over the “receiver,” the one who is able enough to give over the one who “needs,” the have over the have-not. When we keep those distinctions between ourselves, we not only make ourselves look like the “saviors” of those who “need us,” but we undercut the truth that we all need each other; that we are all interconnected.
It is hard to ask for help, it is hard to accept help in a culture that makes it look like weakness, but in reality it takes a lot of strength and the courage to acknowledge our vulnerability. In this time when we feel each other’s distance more profoundly, don’t let the fear and stigma of asking for what you need drive us even further apart. Let’s take care of each other, and graciously let ourselves be taken care of.