I boarded a crowded train a few weeks back. It was a day when my tremor was particularly bad. A thoughtful woman offered to find me a seat, which I declined. Then as I struggled to manoeuvre my phone into an already full bag another passenger tried to help me. Without saying a word he unzipped the bag, took my phone from me and put it inside the bag.

Part of me was thankful that a complete stranger noticed my struggle and took the initiative to help. Another part of me wanted to scream “Leave me alone. I can do it myself!”

A good friend told me a while back that while I had spent my life helping others he was not sure I’d be very good at receiving help. He was right. I had never realised how difficult it can be to receive help. It’s an admission that I can’t do it on my own, that I am less competent at some things than I used to be, and somehow feels like an erosion of my humanity. At the same time I feel that I am imposing on others and I don’t want to be a burden.

We recently painted the exterior of our house and I knew I could not do it myself. My brother and his father-in-law very generously volunteered themselves but we’d still need a couple of extra hands. It took every ounce of strength in me to ask for help, but I finally got up the gumption to send an email to the church we attend asking for assistance. The response was overwhelming. Over the course of the four days set aside for painting a small army of volunteers showed up. It was a humbling experience that proved to me once again the power of community that can be ours if we swallow our pride and just ask for help.

But it’s a fine line. For while I need to ask for more help than in the past, I also want to maintain as much independence as I can for as long as I can. When that guy on the train silently took charge he robbed me of the opportunity to get my phone into the bag myself. It may have taken me longer, but I would have managed in the end.

So it seems there’s not only an art to receiving help, there’s an art to giving it too. My advice? Ask before you act. This gives the recipient the opportunity to say yes and to say no. And when you get a “no”, don’t keep on insisting for that simply causes embarrassment. In offering help you show me generosity and love. In asking me first you show me respect. In acting when I say yes you show me grace. In living with your discomfort watching me struggle after I say no you give me dignity.

And in learning the humility of both receiving and giving help I suspect we become a gift to each other.

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