Helping and being helped
I love Christmas. For me it is a wonderful season of remembering a first century teenage girl who was unmarried and pregnant, and the young man who stuck by her as she gave birth in a stranger’s stable. We try to reduce the stress that can be associated with Christmas in my family by keeping the celebrations very casual and agreeing to donate money to charity in lieu of gifts, apart from a few presents for the younger children. There are always a few “waifs and strays” who join in and add to the fun. As we enjoy each other’s company and the eclectic mix of food that happens when everyone contributes something to the meal, it comes naturally to reflect on what I see as the true meaning of Christmas. What can I do for those in my community who need shelter or friendship? Who am I grateful to for the helping hand they have extended to me this year? As my final blog post for 2015, and in the spirit of the season, here are some of my thoughts on the topic of kindness. Enjoy!
Helping and being helped.
I’ve confessed before that I have always been an independent person - much more comfortable caring for others than letting others care for me. It’s not always a good trait. Life typically works better if we take the outstretched hands of friends and let them help us along. Often, too, there is a genuine kindness in graciously accepting the help that is offered. The first time I think I ever really understood that was the day my boss insisted on driving me home from the hospital, before my MS diagnosis was even definite. My initial reaction when he appeared at my bedside and told me why he was there was one of surprise, mixed in with some gratitude and relief that I would not have to deal with public transport to get home. But in a flash I thought through how ridiculous his offer really was. It was a Friday afternoon. The traffic was going to be terrible. It would take at least forty minutes to travel to my place, and my boss would have to turn around and come back to work for a bit – only to have to drive all the way back along the same choked roads to get to his own home, which is further again in the same direction as mine. He’d be on the road for several hours, just to save me a modicum of inconvenience and discomfort. So I did a double take and told him “Thank you, but I can’t let you do that. I’ll be OK”
It was only when I saw his face that I understood my mistake. My boss was the only person at work who knew where I was and why I’d been having the lumbar puncture and the IV steroids. Although we hadn’t talked about it, we both knew I probably had MS. He was just as worried for me as I was scared for myself, and he truly wanted to help. Instead of really seeing the look of fatherly concern on his face as he announced how he was going to make my day a bit more bearable, I’d just tried to turn down his lovely offer as I didn’t want to inconvenience him. Thoughtless me! Fortunately my boss has several adult children of his own and did not give up easily. When he repeated “You need a lift and I’m here to give it to you” I had the sense to simply thank him and enjoy a comfortable ride and his pleasant company. From the fact I’ve written about this experience twice already, you may have gathered it made quite an impression on me! I hope I thanked my boss properly at the time – but I’m honestly not sure I did. I must tell him some time what a lot his kindness meant to me!
There have been other times, great and small, when people have done things for me that were really, really wonderful when they happened. The act of taking me to a supermarket to pick up some groceries during an early episode of visual impairment felt almost life-saving at the time. The extraordinary generosity of parents who had air-conditioning installed at my home when they realised how heat sensitive my MS symptoms are is something I am still humbled by ten years on. My little house is one that only gets really warm on relatively few days each year, so this was a luxury I didn’t feel I could justify. Then Mum and Dad stepped in and organised the whole thing on my behalf, including paying for everything and even coming over while I was at work so that someone would be there when the men came to do the installation. Just as with that lift home a few years earlier, my first reaction was “I can’t let you do that!” - only to realise that those who love me most were genuinely thrilled to have come up with something they could do that would improve my quality of life. And that cool air seriously does make a difference on a really hot day! I wish everyone had family willing and able to go to that extreme to make life with MS a bit easier.
I hope I have become better at accepting help as time with MS has gone on. Sometimes I need to ask for it – such as when I sought permission to rearrange some of my work responsibilities to avoid too many “surges” in work load throughout the year and to allow me to work from home some days. Sometimes I don’t ask, especially when my need is not too urgent – and I’m sure there are times when I “get by”, without realising I might have given a friend or family member genuine pleasure if I’d only let them know how they could have helped to make my life easier. There’s a fine line between being too independent and falling into the trap of being seen as a whinger by asking for help when we didn’t really need it. I don’t always get the balance right! But I have noticed that if I give people a bit of guidance when I really do need help – “Would you have time to come and take me to the supermarket I know well? I can’t drive right now, and I couldn’t find anything with my eyes like this when I tried to shop at one that’s on the train line” – they have been really pleased to step in. And those same people, the ones who have been given a concrete example of what helps when my version of MS is giving me a hard time, tend to be the ones who are the most help next time, without needing prompting. Seeing how much difference it makes to have a few people who notice what I need when I’m not well has probably made me much better at helping others when they are in need, too.
So what are my tips for truly helping a friend or a colleague going through a difficult time? Be practical. Visit if you know them well enough for that to be appropriate, but ask if you can do the dishes or hang out a load of washing while you chat. Take a meal (in a container you don’t need back) and make it something that can go in the freezer until it is needed – just in case everyone has the same idea. Ask if there is anything they would like some help with, and make suggestions if they don’t come up with anything on their own. You may be surprised at how useful a quick trip to the grocery store could be! And if doing chores is no longer something you can offer, a simple phone call to let them know you are interested in how they are going can mean a great deal. Or perhaps you could watch a movie together to take their mind off whatever their struggle is?
It’s relatively easy to help someone going through a short-term challenge – whether it’s a new baby in the house, a temporary illness, or an MS flare from which they hope to recover. Being a longer term supporter requires more thought, but I think it’s something we can all do. Most of us have the ability to commit to phoning someone who is lonely on a regular basis and showing genuine interest in their life. Perhaps there’s a shared passion you can celebrate in some way? If time is short, mailing a cheerful note can mean a lot in these days of impersonal electronic communications.
I’ve written before that a strong support network is something I have come to view as an important tool for living as well as possible with MS – and that the best support works in both directions. Somehow it’s easier to accept help from others if I know I am also doing what I can to help those I know who have a need I can satisfy. And I always feel better myself when I do something for someone else, too! If you’d like to read more about the joy of helping others, take a look at the “Wake up project”, which aims to build a better world through anonymous acts of kindness. They’ve sent me my free pack of “kindness cards” – and Christmas is the perfect time to think about how best to use them!
The Unaffected One