Our lives are so much more convenient compared with the lives of our ancestors that it’s easy to believe we make it all on our own. But it’s a safe bet to say not a single one of us would be able to survive for long if we were absolutely left to our own devices.
The most astonishing thing about our species is the level of success and dominance we’ve managed to achieve over time. Compared with bears, we’re a flimsy lot; we couldn’t hope to outrun a tiger; and we have to take the best care of our bodies lest we succumb to an accident that causes injury or death. But modern-day humans have become so intoxicated by delusions of grandeur that we fail to see just how fragile we all are.
Few humans grow their own food, build their own homes or make the clothes they wear. If you take a look around you, nothing you see would be possible without the efforts of other humans. My existence is likely as unknown to them as theirs is to me, but thanks to their efforts, I’m able to write this article on a laptop that sits on a desk I had no hand in making.
The very success of our species continues because of the interconnected and often unseen ways we all help each other. Receiving help and support is no rare occurrence – it’s occurring all the time, but we take for granted what we enjoy, thinking we’ve done the work ourselves.
We humans are the most collaborative species on the planet. The language we developed thanks to our cognitive revolution enabled us to come together, work together, support each other and build from tribes to communities to villages, towns, cities, and nations.
There is no such thing (in the world most of us know) as an independent human being. At best, we can be autonomous, but even Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, relies on the continuous efforts of others who sustain his position as the richest person in the world. And anyone who has known loneliness appreciates just how much we need connection – even cloistered monastics live together and enjoy the presence of fellow beings.
When I was making my way through college, several mentors helped and encouraged me, opened doors for me, and guided me in ways that I could never begin to repay. I realised that the only thing to do was recognise my extreme good fortune and pay it forward whenever I can.
Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t work hard and put in the hours to make the most of opportunities. But any success I have enjoyed comes as a result of collective efforts, the sum of which outweighs my own.
But when we take our comforts, our convenience and successes for granted, it can feel like we did it on our own. We lose sight of the enormous amounts of help we received along the way. Perhaps pride sets in as we look down upon those in need of help in trying times.
Asking for help is hard because we’re so conditioned by this idea that our lives are our responsibility alone, or we might hear that “a real man” takes care of his family and is weak if he struggles to do so.
These notions are not only ignorant and wrong, they’re also dangerous. When he visits prisoners or people outcast by society, Pope Francis reminds himself, “There but for the grace of God go I”. Indeed, if this Covid-19 crisis teaches us anything, it’s that our circumstances can change drastically in a short period of time. Pride is scant protection against a harsh reality.
Those who are struggling might be told by those in fortunate positions to “just pray”. Surely those in need are in themselves a message from God, a reminder that it’s easy to recite verses from scripture or attend services. Spirituality is always in the practice.
But asking for help reminds us of our vulnerability and seeing people in need robs us of our illusion that we’re safe from unfortunate circumstances. It’s why it’s so hard to look a beggar in the eye. They remind us of the fragility of our circumstances. We’re not disgusted by them – we’re afraid of their reminder that someday we might be in desperate need too.
All of us are vulnerable, and we surely hope that in our time of need people would be quick to offer us help. Imagine what it’d be like to be abandoned, to be treated as less than human?
There is no shame in asking for help. When we succeed, it doesn’t make us better than anyone else, and when we encounter hard times, it does not reduce our worth.
We have to work together and help each other, to give as much as we’re able. There’s no greater gift than to alleviate another person’s suffering. And the only time we should ever look down on anyone is when we’re offering them a hand up.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.