By Marc Gilson
Two in the morning, mid July, somewhere south of Paducah, Kentucky. I was driving down a moonlit highway, the 24, sipping cold black coffee, on my way to Nashville on business. I’d never been to Paducah Kentucky before. But while Paducah certainly has its virtues, at 2:00 am there really isn’t much to separate it from a hundred other towns, at least to the eye of a weary traveler.
I had left Paducah behind almost an hour ago. The thought of reaching my destination was in the back of my mind because foremost on my mind was ascertaining my present location. I had no clear indication that I was on the right path. I was alone and tired. I was low on gas. And while I would not have admitted it to anyone at the time, I was lost.
This was in the days before GPS. Before cell phones with map apps that could have helped me. Even worse, my trusty paper map I had purchased in St. Louis earlier that day turned out to be around 22 years old, and about as useful as the radio, which was playing “Who’s Going to Drive You Home?” by the Cars, immediately followed by Paul McCartney singing “The Long and Winding Road”. At least, I told myself, I was still driving in the right direction; getting closer to Nashville with every passing lane stripe. I hoped.
My last point of reference had been Paducah, or more specifically, a Texaco gas station on the southern edge of Paducah. But that Texaco station had disappeared long ago in the rear view mirror, and I was getting nervous. The highway signs began to look suspiciously like they were written in some kind of cryptic code only the locals were meant decipher; they all seemed the same and none of them gave me the necessary guidance. Every passing mile looked just like the one before it. There were turn-offs, junctions, by-passes, route exits, and I hadn’t the faintest notion which of these might lead me to my destination. I was driving by instinct and guts, or to be more honest, by a misguided and over-inflated trust in my own supposed navigational abilities.
I don’t like that feeling of being where I don’t want to be, and not really knowing where to go, and yet going somewhere anyway in hopes of ending up where I want to be by sheer luck and good traveling karma. But there’s one thing I don’t like even more than that: asking for directions.
Asking for directions is something confused people do. It’s a sign that you’re not in control, that something went wrong in the planning, and that mistakes were made. Asking for directions makes you look stupid, vulnerable, inept. Someone who asks for directions isn’t self-sufficient. They’re co-dependent. Only fools ask for directions! So, not being a fool, I wasn’t about to waste time stopping to ask for directions when I could just keep on moving.
Besides, I’ve long believed in the theory that as long as you don’t ask for directions, you’re not officially lost. Once you ask somebody, “How do I get to…?” or “Does such-and-such highway take me to such-and-such junction?” you automatically become lost. Really lost. Officially lost. I was not about to ask for directions. No way. As long as I just kept going I would not really be lost. I would be “taking the scenic route.” I was not about to stop now.
But my rental car had other ideas. The low fuel warning light began flashing from behind the steering wheel. And just as I was slapping myself in the forehead for not filling up my gas tank at that Texaco station back in Paducah, I suddenly recognized yet another Texaco station, gleaming like a beacon of hope in the night, just off the highway at the upcoming exit. Thank God! Thank Texaco!
Pulling off the highway, I sighed in relief. Sure I was still lost, but at least I could continue being lost without also being stuck. The sleepy station attendant greeted me with a 2:00 am wave (which I would define as a friendly but half-hearted hand gesture indicating nothing more than the person waving is mostly alive and barely awake).
His name tag said “Irv.” I asked Irv for a fill-up and took a deep breath of the heavy, humid night air while uncapping the gas tank. Somewhere beyond the range of the bright overhead lights of the gas station, a choir of cicadas chitted-and-chirped in staccato rhythm. I stood by my little rental Honda as Irv and I watched the pump tick the gallons and dollars away. Little did he know that I was in the midst of a sticky dilemma. Little did he know that I was lost. Or maybe he did. Maybe he could sense it, like the way animals sense fear in humans. Irv swatted at a moth the size of a humming bird hovering over his head. Nah, Irv couldn’t sense that I was lost.
But Irv did seem like he’d know the way to Nashville. And if I could overcome my own pride, I might just find out from him how to get there. Of course he might think I was an idiot. And maybe he’d be right.
“Where you headed?” Irv casually asked as my car drank its fill. “Nashville,” I replied, watching a semi truck growling down the highway into the darkness on the highway close by (probably going to Nashville). Irv nodded, and reached to top off the tank before removing the gas nozzle. “That’s $36.00,” he said, as I replaced the gas cap. I began fumbling for the cash in my wallet, meanwhile there was an argument happening in my head. “Do I ask for directions? No! I’ll be OK,” I said to myself. I pretended to be counting out the money, slowly, to give me more time to argue with myself. “How can I ask for directions? I’d look like an idiot. But I can’t just keep driving around all night. For all I know, I’m on my way to Chicago.”
Irv was still standing there with his hand out. “Thirty-six on the gas,” he reiterated. “Yeah, okay. Hang on,” I stalled. I handed him the money and I noticed that he began to look at me a little strangely, one eye slightly squinting at me under the florescent gas station lights. With all my quirky behavior, I probably started to raise his suspicions. “Where are you from, mister?” he inquired with a raised eyebrow. I chuckled nervously, “Well, I’m from Oregon, not really from around here.” He nodded, apparently confirming his suspicions of me. “Been on the road long?” he asked in his rich Kentucky drawl. “Little while now,” I said, “just left Paducah little over an hour ago.” He looked up at me with a puzzled, almost startled, expression, like I had suddenly grown a second nose. Then he held up his hand to me and said, “Hang on a minute, buddy,” and suddenly jogged away, into the station booth. Odd people around here.
He returned seconds later and pushed a road map into my hands. “Here,” he said, “it’s on me.” I laughed, “Oh thanks, but I know where I’m going.” Actually, I didn’t even know where I was! The map – an updated map – was the very holy grail I sought. But my ego wouldn’t let me take it. It kept telling me, “You’re not lost! No, not lost at all. You know right where you are. You’re… at a Texaco… talking to Irv.”
With a resolute facade of self-confidence, I held the map back out to him, “Really, I don’t need it, thanks though.” Irv gave me a straight look in the eye, and a slightly crooked smile. “Yeah okaaay,” he said slowly, “but do you know where you are?” I stood there for a moment, breathlessly waiting for him to tell me where I was. I shrugged, sheepishly. He pointed to the ground and said, “Mister, this IS Paducah.”
I took the map and left.
“Asking is the beginning of receiving.” — Motivational speaker, Jim Rohn
How often have we found ourselves in a situation where we’ve needed to ask for directions but have been too proud to do it? I’m not just talking about directions to Nashville, but to anywhere in life we wish to go. How many times do we ignore the helping hand and end up going around in circles? How many times have we resisted asking someone close to us for a little help -with a personal crisis, with a financial problem, for a ride to work, to help move the piano, to help us grieve a loss? Asking for help is, for some of us, a taboo.
Our culture prizes self-reliance and independence. We equate these characteristics with strength. We don’t want to need anyone’s help. We don’t want to have to rely on others for our happiness or success. We strive to establish our own autonomy so as not to be dependent on anyone or anything else. The “rugged individualist” is one of our cultural icons, like Indiana Jones. But even Indiana Jones had help.
Like many people, I was raised with lots of praise for what I managed to accomplish on my own. When you learn to tie your shoes “on your own,” or do your laundry “on your own,” or pay your bills “on your own,” you’re maturing into adulthood. Indeed, maturity is often defined by how self-reliant one becomes. So it’s no wonder many of us are thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea of seeking help; be it from a friend, a doctor, a teacher, a mental health professional, or even a stranger. We’re adults, strong and independent, right? A real man, a confident woman doesn’t need anybody else! We don’t need no stinkin’ help!
Yet this path of individualism can be a lonely one, especially when we honestly and genuinely need help. It can produce feelings of helplessness, depression, fear. While we may wish to appear as though we “have it all together” by never asking for help, we may be struggling needlessly with burdens that might be lightened by a willingness to accept some assistance from those around us. Nobody can assume responsibility for our lives. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t occasionally lean on those around us.
While many of us have been taught to respect the merits of individual accomplishment, we sometimes fail to recognize the benefits of relying on others for help when we need it. It takes strength to do it; sometimes it takes more strength to ask for help than to pretend we don’t need it. Those we admire and respect the most often seem to be independently strong, self-reliant, distinct from the mundane masses. But we sometimes forget that very few of life’s greatest accomplishments are made by one person acting alone.
Someone once said, “life is a team sport.” And to compete in this sport, to succeed and thrive, we need one another. We need each other’s expertise, compassion, wisdom, kindness, and support. In life, strength doesn’t come only from independence, but from the interplay and exchange of ideas, feelings, and perspectives. It’s a maxim of human progress – it’s a group endeavor. Collaboration, cooperation, partnership, teamwork – this is what often gets the job done.
I am often amazed at the number of people I encounter in my life coaching work who tell me how alone they feel, how unsupported they are by those around them, how distant and isolated they are from people who “really understand” them. And yet often I find, with a little exploring, that the deeper reasons have much to do with a certain unwillingness on their part to engage and integrate their friends and family into their lives.
There is an ingrained belief that they cannot be understood, that no one could possibly help them, that they must hide their needs, and that they must survive solely by their own wits without relying on others. (Or maybe, like me on that dark and unfamiliar highway, they simply confused the virtues of self-reliance with blind stubbornness.) So their loneliness is not imposed on them by others, but by their own hang-ups about the exclusivity of their needs. Ironically, the people who are often the most lonely and in need of support are also those who are the most giving, and the least willing to ask for directions.
I recently spoke to a wonderful woman in British Columbia, employed full-time and a single mother of three children still living at home. Let’s call her Helen. Her story was similar to those you may have heard before. Helen worked hard at her clerical job, and even harder at home. She sacrificed an immense amount of personal energy in the raising of her children. She baby-sat her sister’s children on the weekends. She got up at 5 am and was rarely to bed before midnight. She hadn’t had a vacation of any kind in four years. She was dedicated to her children (and other’s children) and committed to her vocation as a social worker. She often accepted a much heavier caseload at work than she could manage. Although Helen is surrounded by people who love, need, and respect her, she felt very alone, very drained, very exhausted. She is a giver. But her ceaseless giving was creating an internal crisis. Helen’s energy was low and she was showing classic signs of clinical depression. She was running on fumes. While not wandering the highways of Kentucky at two in the morning like me, she was certainly just as lost in her own maze of life, and just as reticent to ask for help.
I ventured to ask Helen a simple question, “Have you asked your kids for some help?” She paused and then said, “Oh no! I don’t think they could help. They’re busy being kids. Besides, they can’t do what I do.” “Yes, but have you asked them?” After another long pause, she replied more thoughtfully, “You know, actually, I haven’t really asked them.”
Helen is a tremendous giver. But it hadn’t crossed her mind to ask for something in return for what she gives. It didn’t seem okay for her to ask for help. But in not asking for help, she was really doing, not only herself, but also her children and those who depended on her, a disservice. She was teaching them that giving was a one-way street and that sacrificing to the point of self-destruction was the same as a mother’s love.
So the strategy I asked Helen to try was simple: Build a support system by asking for some help. I can’t tell you that it was easy for her at first, but she did succeed eventually. She began by assigning some chores for her children to do, things like setting the table for dinner, clearing the dishes after meals, and bringing dirty laundry to the laundry room. She then asked some of her co-workers for assistance with her case load. She set aside Sunday afternoons as “me time” and spent it indulging in simple pleasures of her own choosing; bookstore browsing, lunching with a friend, watching a favorite movie, etc.
Within a couple of weeks, Helen was experiencing the simple benefits of asking for help. When she called me, I didn’t immediately recognize the lighthearted voice on the other end of the phone. She said, “I feel like I have a newfound sense of direction and optimism, like I’m alive again. And I didn’t really have to do much!”
Asking for help isn’t easy. It takes strength and courage to ask for directions. So why do some of us think it’s something only the weak and confused do? Why are so many of us so afraid to ask for directions when we feel lost?
Perhaps one of the potential pitfalls of the personal growth movement today is that we can sometimes become too focused on independence and autonomy. We do a lot of talking about being “on our own path,” “finding our own answers,” and being careful to know “our stuff,” from other people’s “stuff.” Perhaps we’d all be a little happier and healthier if we were to explore the benefits of asking for directions when we need them. In doing so we can discover that the world isn’t as hostile or uncaring of a place as we may have thought, and that it’s truly okay to look to one another for a little help now and then.
Helping others is a terrific feeling. But there can be no giving without also the willingness to accept. This exchange of energy, the balance of “give and take”, is where we find the greatest powers known to us: love, compassion, understanding, and kindness. When we refuse to ask for help from those who love us, we deny the value of those people in our lives. In the case of Helen, one other benefit to her willingness to ask her children for help around the house was an increased sense of self-esteem among the kids. It feels good to help. But as with all things in life, balance is critical. In a sense, most successful human communication depends heavily on both healthy boundaries, and healthy honesty. When these aspects are out of balance, you can expect there to be disharmony in life.
As we strive to become more fully developed as human beings, let’s keep in mind that we are all part of the same living force, that separateness is an illusion, and that we can, therefore, safely seek-out help and ask for directions when we need to. John Donne told us that “no man is an island.” Indeed at the deepest level of human existence, there are no islands; we are each different flora and fauna of the same vast and connected landscape.