On the Moral Obligation to Ask for Help

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to say a few words about something most children do exceedingly well: asking for help. It makes sense. When we’re born, we don’t know how to do anything, except sleep, drink, cry and poop. That’s about it. Eventually we learn to smile, giggle, eat mush, then eat solid foods, talk, crawl, walk, run, jump, dance, etc. Children figure out many things on their own. For example, children learn to talk by listening to their parents or care-givers talk, and then copying what they do. However, when we’re young, there’s just so much we don’t know how to do how to do. We don’t have enough years under our belts. We don’t have enough life experience. We need help. Of course, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, teachers and paraeducators, doctors and nurses, friends and neighbors all have things they want to teach children, whether children ask for help or now. But even so, along the way, there are all sorts of things children want to do that they don’t know how to do. There are all sorts of things children want to learn. So they ask for help. It’s very natural.

The baby’s cry is a way of asking for help:

“Help, I’m hungry, I need something to eat.”

“Help, my diaper is wet.”

“Help, I’m all alone in this crib and I want to snuggle.”

And it evolves from there:

“Help: pick me up!”

“Help: my tummy hurts.”

“Help: how do you catch a ball?”

“Help: I can’t sleep, there’s a monster under my bed. Can you scare it away?”

“Help: show me how to do a somersault.”

“Help: I can’t get my shoe tied, my button buttoned or my zipper zipped.”

“Help: I’m having trouble with my homework.”

“Help: How do you spell dinosaur?”

“Help: What does this word mean?”

“Help: How do you build a tree house?

“Help: Can you drive me to the mall?”

“Help: When can I learn to drive?”

My point is that children ask for help all the time, and their asking is very natural. Help me understand how the world works, how my body works, how to make friends, etc.

But as we age, something very odd happens. We ask for help less. In fact, many people stop asking for help entirely. We get to a certain point in our lives when we’re adults, and suddenly, if we don’t know how to do something, we’re embarrassed to ask for help. We feel like we should know how to do a certain thing, and we don’t want people to know we don’t know how to do it, so we don’t ask. Or worse, we pretend we know how to do it, even though we don’t. We want to appear competent, skilled and knowledgeable. We want to appear as if we have it all together and we don’t need help. So we don’t ask.

I’m not saying this is the case for everyone. Some adults are very good at asking for help when they need it. But in my almost quarter-century of experience as a minister, I find that more often than not, adults (at least in the United States, and especially in New England) don’t like asking for help. A simple example in my life is things with motors. I don’t know anything about things with motors. A lot of people assume that men of a certain age know about cars, lawnmowers, tractors, leaf blowers, snow blowers, power tools in general, and kitchen appliances. If it runs on gas or electricity, I know virtually nothing. I’ve learned how to do a few things over the years by reading manuals or watching videos online, but I really know very little, and when something breaks, I am more likely to make it worse than better. I will ask for help, because I have to, but there’s always a tinge of embarrassment. I feel an impulse to resist revealing that I don’t know how to do something.

That’s just one example. In my experience it’s even harder to ask for help when there are more serious life challenges. When we’re used to always being in control of our lives, but something gets in the way of that, like not having enough money to pay bills, or not being able to drive, it’s often difficult to admit what’s going on. Remember our ministry theme for March is vulnerability. When we feel vulnerable, at risk in some way, it can be very difficult to ask for help. I’m speaking in generalities here, but many of us feel that if we need help, it somehow reflects poorly on us. It somehow suggests that we don’t measure up to some standard of what makes a good person, and we’re very tentative about asking, or we just won’t ask at all.

Mia Songbird is a writer, scholar, activist and organizer based in Oakland, CA who says: “So many of us have a deep aversion to asking for help. The idea of asking for help makes us feel like a failure, makes us feel weak. We often think of needing help as a burden. But that is toxic individualism talking! It’s telling us that we should be able to do it on our own, that if we were strong enough, good enough, capable enough, we wouldn’t need help.”[1] Think about this. We come into this world knowing instinctively how to ask for help. And yet somehow asking for help becomes problematic as we mature. We educate, train, socialize ourselves out of something that is instinctual and necessary.

Mia Songbird reminds us that human beings “long to give and receive support.” She refers to a friend of hers named Amoretta Morris who says we inhabit a “divine circle of giving and receiving.” I think it is divine. Or sacred. Or holy. She says that while we often focus on what asking for help means for the person who receives the help, we often forget that giving help can be transformative for the giver. There’s a flow to giving and receiving help. When we don’t ask for help, we block that flow.[2]

Mia Songbird says learning about this flow was liberating for her. Asking for help is as important as providing help. She writes: “We have a responsibility to each other to ask for help when we need it,” so that people around us can fulfill their very natural longing to help.[3] I take it one step further. Given that human beings have a deep longing to both give and receive support, I say we actually have a moral obligation to ask for help when we need it. As I hear myself say those words, I recognize that they sound strange. We typically think of helping others in need as the moral thing to do—the compassionate, loving thing to do. We don’t typically think of asking for help as the moral thing to do. I’m saying it is the moral thing to do, precisely because it creates opportunities for others to fulfill their purpose.

My message for all the kids is this: when it comes to asking for help, you keep doing what you already do so well, what you do very naturally: ask for help when you need it. And hope throughout your lives you will never feel like you can’t ask for help. That is, I hope you will never unlearn how to ask for help.

My message for adults: We actually know how to ask for help. We were children once. We were natural seekers of help from our caregivers and teachers. We can regain this capacity to seek help when we need it. But asking for help is more than this. It really is a moral obligation. It gives the people around us an opportunity to fulfill their longing to be of service, to be of support. And it thereby strengthens the bonds of community.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Songbird, Mia, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community (New York: Hachette Books, 2020) p. 16.

[2] Ibid., p. 17.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.