Monday, November 22, 2010

Self-Sufficient--Or Just Too Proud?

I would like to believe that my stubborn independence is due to my DNA. That my genes are the reason why, at 3 a.m., instead of calling a friend to take me to the emergency room, I dialed 911.

Why would I expect anybody else to do what I could arrange for myself, even if insurance didn't cover it?

Would my Mississippi great grandparents on my father's side ever have expected such help? All they had was hope and guts but still they claimed their government land during the brutal 1800s Oklahoma land runs. And on those 80 acres, they birthed nine children, grew corn and cotton, raised hogs and chickens and picked and canned wild blackberries. Their homesteader existence was reaped and sowed on indomitable self-sufficiency.

But also on common sense--which is why my wishful thinking about my DNA doesn't hold water.

In my great grandparents' time people had to be practical, so they understood the value of neighborliness--not just because it was the kind thing to do, but also because it was crucial to survival. If someone needed his strawberries harvested, my grandmother and her siblings were called on to pick them and were paid in berries instead of cash.

Connectedness was as vital as each person's independence. The two went hand in hand, creating a community that was stronger than the individuals alone. It took great strength to be self-reliant, but it also took strength to stifle pride and ask for help when needed.

Three generations later, community connectedness necessarily faded as my father pursued an upwardly mobile corporate career that uprooted his family regularly. So I never witnessed my parents ask for help when I was growing up--especially not at 3 a.m. What they thought they could handle amongst our family, they handled. What they believed they could afford to pay for, they bought.

Consequently, we didn't borrow sugar from a neighbor or hire a therapist when someone was down. But we did pay housekeepers and hairdressers for their services and, briefly, a cook--until my mother discovered the woman fried everything and my father had high cholesterol.

And of course we hired movers. By the time I was 16, we'd lived in three countries, six cities and nine residences.

Constant displacement became so natural that between the ages of 21 and 29--before I settled into the condominium that my husband and I now occupy--I moved eight more times on my own. Two were cross-country, five included a truckload of furniture, and each time I paid professionals to help me. The one exception was after college I asked a brother to drive my car from Pennsylvania to California and, two years later, a college roommate's parents to help sell it. But I was so uncomfortable requesting help outside my family, I'm ashamed to say, that my gratitude was overwhelmingly disproportionate to their generosity--as if denying their assistance made it somehow not real.
Recently, when I told close friends what happened that night at 3 a.m., their reactions were much the same: "Why didn't you call me?" One friend, I was surprised, was even angry.

But I remember how sick I was. I'd been throwing up so much I was disoriented from depleted sodium and potassium. Even still I defaulted to familiar and called a service for help.

That was three years ago; I'd do things differently today.

My self-reliance--and my ability to pay for help--wasn't a sign of strength. At least, it wasn't that night. It was a weakness that looked deceitfully good on the outside but deep down really wasn't. It separated me from the people I don't want to be separated from.

Not that it's easy asking for help. When I've exhausted my resources and I'm at my most vulnerable, the last thing I want sometimes is for others to know.

But humility softens my edges, makes me more pliable and opens me up to the opportunity to grow, which I need.

It also reminds me how equally vulnerable every one of us is--and keeps me from being such a proud pain in the you-know-what.

Besides, who would want to deal with an ambulance if they didn't absolutely have to?

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