It is better to give than to receive. And that makes receiving hard.

It is better to give than to receive. And with that wonderful adage is the awkward truth that to receive is hard. This cannot be truer than it is for people with a long-term condition like chronic illness or disability. I recently presented at a caregiver conference sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, The Family Caregiver Alliance, and UCSF where one man has clocked in eight years and counting to care for his loved one with cancer. In such a circumstance, we have to wonder for how long will neighbors motivate to drop off a casserole? Do the laundry? Send the flowers?

Usually, my talks and HEO’s Empathy Bootcamp focus on encouraging us as bystanders to someone’s personal trial to offer help, and to do so before waiting to be asked. Why? Because when you’re in a difficult time, asking for help is just one more difficult thing to do. But this audience was comprised of people who are losing income, forgoing career opportunities, and missing rejuvenating social time in order to care for someone they love. They didn’t need to hear how to give more. They needed to hear how to receive, and to ask for help.

I wondered how to make this shift in focus to asking for help, and thankfully just days prior to the event got a wonderful insight on helping provided by Paul Asfour, a UCSF Volunteer Manager. In a recent Empathy Bootcamp he attended, we watched a video of a young cancer survivor reading her beautifully penned poem about the multitude of caring gestures people made during her chemotherapy. The take-away from this is usually about the value of small moves that can make a big difference. And with that, a lesson in how we can offer small help with a lower case h, and not put on us to offer the big Help with a capital H. Because if we imagine rescuing someone from their pain, it only takes one long day at work, one awful night with the kids, one awesome invitation to see a favorite band for us to relegate that big, big job for another day. And ultimately, to just shy away.

But Paul saw something more in this young survivor’s poem. Its beauty was not solely in the several small things that were offered her, but in the very fact that she could recognize them being offered. Ah ha. In order to benefit from what we receive, we must notice what is being given.

In the depths of our suffering, that can be a tall order. No one so fully brings this problem to light like C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his book A Grief Observed after the loss of his wife: “You are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” I have been this drowning person whose cries deafened me to the voice I had hoped to hear. My desperation for help made me very hard to help indeed.

So in this room of caregivers, we took time to acknowledge both the small gestures that we are capable of doing for others, and those that others do for us. Basically, honoring the small in all of us as something rather significant.

When we appreciate the significance of small gifts, those we can offer, those we receive, we are likely to offer such gifts, we are more likely to receive such gifts. When needing help, if we are often disappointed, then we will likely continue to be. Because rather than risk failing us, people will opt to shy away.

So when in a position of needing help, two points I wish to consider when in my most dire of times:

  • Notice each small gesture from a friend, family member, stranger, colleague or neighbor that comes your way to give you comfort. A hug; a listening ear; a ride; an offer to see a movie; you name it. Cherish it when you can. Doesn’t mean you write a thank you note. Your attitude will reflect that gratitude and make you an easier person to give to.
  • Ask people in your life who have their unique gifts to contribute just that one gift to your care circle. The gardener who can weed and plant; the listener who can come by for tea; the taskmaster who can shop. See what their good at, compliment them about that skill, and let them know how it can help you.

It’s really hard to ask. Yet, as much as I hate the truth of it, sometimes there’s no better alternative. And with that reality, I am learning the secret to getting help is not in the asking. It’s in the noticing. It is in the receiving.