Help is a Four Letter Word

Damn, shit, hell, crap, and fuck are words that can make us cringe, used inappropriately in the boardroom, or in front of kids.  When I think of four-letter words, I automatically think of cussing, but “help” is a four-letter word too. 

For such a tiny word – a word that can be uttered in a mousey, harmless squeak or bellowed like a passing ship’s foghorn – asking for help runs the gamut. 

Like an onion, some forms of help are sweet – like the little old lady at the grocery store who needs help reaching the pickles on the top shelf;  another “help” might be strong enough to make your eyes sting, like tears.

In its simplest form, the teeny tiny favor of opening a jar or lending a cup of sugar, helping is benign.  Opportunistic little tasks, favors are usually immediate, usually low effort.  A momentary interrupt, they make us feel good about ourselves.  I know I enjoy giving directions to someone who is lost, or helping someone find a bathroom.  It’s impossible to say no; and why would we want to, because there’s no risk involved and we provided something useful.

Then there’s scheduled help, usually friends or family who need physical assistance – such as moving, or driving Grandma to the doctor (and back). Now that’s a little different, since we are being asked to sacrifice something  – our time.  There must be an unspoken threshold where one or two hours is no big deal, but three hours and over carries an expectation of payment of some sort:  pizza and beer for moving, dinner for helping with errands, or money for gas.  At some point, probably at the half-day mark, incentives no longer work and the one in need is at the sheer mercy of the person they’ve asked to help.  Who of us has not asked for moving help?  Who of us have ever backed out, or been disappointed in our ‘payment’? I once had a co-worker volunteer to drive cross-country with me.  He offered, I accepted.  I paid for the trip, but by day 3, he said I owed him sex, and when I refused, he wouldn’t share the driving and sulked for the remainder of the trip.

I’m a chronic mover, over 20 times in my adult life.  It’s my experience that our good intentions prevail initially and then our commitment waivers as the time gets closer, as we teeter between loyalty and selfishness, as we realize just how much we’re giving up.  So, when the event is imminent– moving day, cleaning day, or whatever – friends start to back out.  It’s the same with group vacations or cruises.  The IDEA is grand; the reality is far different.  For the first time ever, we hear of a friend’s bad back or a long-scheduled appointment that can’t be broken, or car trouble, or mandatory overtime.  Worst is the friend who just can’t bear to ‘fess up, and just doesn’t show.  What’s the saying?  Better to ask for forgiveness later than to ask permission now.

Lastly, there are pleas.  Pleas are acts of desperation that carry the weight of the world – a request for you to take charge of something, translated ‘do this for me’ instead of ‘help me with this’.  Plea’s for help are usually heavy hitters, like asking for money, a little or a lot for a variety of whys.  Maybe that is when we run screaming in the other direction.  This is the big H – E – L – P!!!! with exclamation points and emergency written all around it in a big red marker. 

In self-defense class long ago, I was taught not to yell ‘rape’ if you’re being raped.  No one will come.  Women should yell ‘fire’ and everybody will come and be tricked into rescuing you.  Help is the same way.  The word ‘help’ can raise red flags and eyebrows, and end in reasons and excuses.

In a troubled mind, this is the ‘help’ that counts;  but in our minds, this is the ‘help’ we avoid, going out of our way to explain and rationalize why we cannot.  Or should not, for those who exercise their right to ask more than once, in cyclical intervals.  Like the dentist poking around with a sharp pointy instrument…when he finds the trouble, the origin, the chronic pain…when he hits that spot, we scream.  Is it the fact that we’ve been asked to fix or take on something that we don’t own and won’t benefit from, when our own lives have concerns?  Or is it that we, not unlike a toothache, ask someone to give and give until it hurts.

In either case, whether we contemplate asking for help  or answering the call, help is a minefield.  Tread lightly.

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