Opinion: The Importance of Letting People Help You

Bonus tip: be careful which friends you let label your boxes.
Bonus tip: be careful which friends you let label your boxes. Photo by CJ Sorg/Flickr
One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn as a middle-aged adult is that offers of help are how other people say “I love you.” In fact, it’s one of the primary mechanisms of maintaining friendships.

American cultural programming is a hell of a drug. Between the pathological individualism and the ever-present Protestant work ethic, we’re constantly being told to be productive and self-sufficient. How many of us have turned a pleasant hobby into another bloody job thanks to the nagging belief that optimizing our output is the right thing to always be doing?

The side effect of this is a deep reticence to accept offered help. If we’re the ones being helped, it’s not only proof of our own failure to fully become a productive machine, but now we’re costing someone else their potential as well! If you’re at all neurodivergent, you probably also have a voice in your head assuring you that the person offering doesn’t even really mean it anyway. They just say they’ll help to be polite, and to accept the offer is to damage the friendship.

Next time a thought like that intrudes, try remembering how you felt the last time you helped someone. It gives you a real sense of accomplishment and worth, as well as knowledge that you concretely made the world better in a small, measurable way. Plus, it’s a great excuse to just be friends in a space for a while with someone.

I’m moving house right now, and this has involved replacing a few bits of furniture that were clearly not going to survive trips up and down a flight of stairs. I’m now at an age where I simply can’t strong-arm may way through an IKEA project so a close friend of mine asked if I needed help, and I was so broken down and tired that I accepted. That’s how we ended up spending a Sunday afternoon cobbling together a TV stand with backwards directions and a hinge set-up I can only describe as labyrinthian.

And yet, we had the greatest time. Our kids go to the same school, so there were plenty of chances to talk about how quirky little offspring (mine even “helped” us on occasion). He’s an old school EBM and goth fan, which means that while we argued with the instructions over orientation we commiserated over Sisters of Mercy and VNV Nation. I got to tell him stories of rock stars I’d interviewed, and he responded with tales of concerts I had never been to.

This is a man who lives literally within walking distance of my house who I had not seen in person in two years. Because I needed a hand with a stupid entertainment center, I had a reason to schedule what was essentially a playdate.

I can’t stress enough how close that felt to what it was like to be in my 20s and the friend with a truck. I have so many happy memories of laughing with buddies as I helped them haul their secondhand possessions out of their crappy apartments (in one case, just barely ahead of the cops coming to evict). You lose that as an adult who has to always be able to do things on your own.

Sure, you have to be careful. Psychic vampires are still out there and will use offers of help to put you in their debt and feed off of you. People forget that the phrase “never look a gift horse in the mouth” truly means “someone might be pawning trash on you and calling it altruism.”

But aside from a few parasites, people want to feel needed, useful, and most of all appreciated. The scariest thing about getting old is feeling unwanted and in the way. When you constantly turn down offers of help, it can make the person with their hand out feel like you don’t value them. What’s the point of all this stability and adulting if we can’t afford to take a few hours off to help a friend?

It’s difficult to retrain the brain, and it’s easy to withdraw into yourself in a spiral of isolation and self-focus. But the next time someone says they have a skill or item you need that they can bring over, let them. Embrace them. Thank them. See it for the expression of friendship and humanity it is, not as a glitch in the great capitalist all-work.

Go on some errands together to keep each other company. Trade lawn mowing or pool cleaning days. Be open with both need and offer. It will rebuild the bonds we have all lost in the age of digital friendships. Social media is a miracle, but it can’t replace the simple act of neighborly charity and small in-person kindnesses.

Let people help you. They want to. It’s literally the history of the whole species.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner