On helplessness, offering help and being helpful

‘Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias’ – ‘A life lived in fear, is a life half lived’

Strictly Ballroom (and my life motto)

If there’s one thing I hate more than anything else, it’s being helpless. I suspect most of us are the same. We spend all of our childhoods learning how not to be helpless, how to feed ourselves, dress ourselves, deal with other people, defend ourselves, and so on and so forth. Life is about learning self-preservation skills.

But sometimes we find that we are helpless, and we desperately need other people. We can’t live in isolation or in a state of total independence. Paul Simon may have sung ‘I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.’ But we all feel the irony in his words. We feel pain whether we’re in community or alone. But it’s easier to deal with when there’s someone with you.

So, as I lifted my head up from the pool of sweat it had been resting in on a table in the middle of Costa Coffee on Shaftesbury Avenue, to be sick in a paper cup because of the intense pain I was in, although I was surrounded by people, who were mostly staring at me with expressions of morbid curiousity and fear, I felt extremely isolated and vulnerable.

I had taken my five year old nephew to the theatre as a treat and on the way back to the Tube station had nearly fainted with extreme period pains. But fortunately I was in Costa and could sit down, with the hope that someone would help me.

I was there, lying across a table, first sweating copiously, then shivering uncontrollably, for half an hour before anyone asked me if I was okay, anxious about not being in a fit state to be responsible for a small child, unable to move myself or gain anyone’s attention.

Eventually I was asked by four different people if I was okay. All of them wanted to call an ambulance for me, and when I explained that all I needed were painkillers, my request was either met with incomprehension, from two foreign tourists, or with reticence to administer medication to me. Although they offered help, they were unwilling to be helpful.

It’s possible to offer help without having to engage with the person you’re offering it to. But to be helpful means becoming part of a solution to their problem. You have to roll your sleeves up and get involved. You have to take on some responsibility. And when it’s a stranger you’re dealing with that’s a big risk to take. In my case, what if I’d actually been a drug user, experiencing withdrawal symptoms – would you want to be the person who gave me more drugs?

At the same time, a few hundred miles away, my mum slipped and broke her shinbone on a hillside near to her home. A passing off-duty paramedic splinted and bandaged her leg while she waited for the air ambulance. His wife lay on the ground next to her and held her to keep her warm when she went into shock. Perhaps it’s easier to get involved when you know you are competent and have some expertise to offer.

Back at my table I called my sister who calmly explained, first to the lady sitting next to me, and then to the manager, that I didn’t need an ambulance, that if someone would buy me painkillers I would be fine. She made it easy for them to abdicate responsibility by taking it on herself. ‘Ask her what kind she needs,’ so that if something happened I had in effect, self-medicated. Once I’d taken painkillers I was recovering and on my way to being normal within half and hour. But it had taken nearly an hour and a half before I got the help I needed.

We live in a baffling world, and I feel fairly conflicted about all of this.

It would be easy to rail about how disparate and broken our society is because no one helped me. Or to slag off the south as ‘unfriendly’ because my mum, in the north, experienced people going above and beyond. But I recognise that had I been sitting in that café watching what was happening to me, I would have been unlikely to get involved too. Even if I’d offered help, to go above and beyond – to go out and buy painkillers for someone to take – might have been a bit too much to ask. And I’d have felt mildly guilty about it for two minutes, and never thought about it again.

When you’re in need, you’re frantic with desperation for humanity to rise up and act on your behalf. And when no one takes action the sense of isolation and helplessness grows and grows.

If there’s one conclusion I can draw, it’s that to be helpless and to face it, takes courage, courage that may only be found in the touch of another person who offers to help. And it takes courage to move towards people with help when they have nothing to offer you but potential trouble. And that perhaps as a society we’ve lost our sense of courage and become overwhelmed by fear.

FF has declared this year, the year of courage. Having courage might mean you get a little more than you bargained for. Being part of your community, engaging with the people around you, will always mean getting more than you could ever bargain for but not taking that risk means we’d have no stories, and nothing to show for our lives. It might by scary, but I’d rather have the tales to tell, and a colourful, people-full, eventful, beautiful life.

4 responses to “On helplessness, offering help and being helpful

  1. Distressing tale, with a reasonable conclusion. Tempting to say we’ve all been there, but given my gender, that would be stretching a point.

    But broadly speaking we have, and on both sides – helpless when in need of the help of others and unhelpful when faced by those who need our help.

    My theory would mirror yours, but I would also factor in the breakdown of community and communication between strangers as a symptom of a globalised society that prefers to interact with one another in relative or total anonymity (compare personal Facebook profiles with culture of online pseudonyms). There comes a point where we must acknowledge this as a factor in the way we relate to one another in the real world.

    Trouble with the combination of these theories is that if you follow it to its logical conclusion, the fear will grow to the point where it becomes a human deficiency and we won’t know how to interact with each other at all. I don’t think this will happen, but then reading your tale, it’s possible we’re well on the way. Ouch.

    So all power to the year of courage!

  2. Maybe its not about north/south, but about the nature of cities, dehumanised spaces, bereft of any sense of community. I think Robin’s view may be a little black, as I have found people mainly willing to help, get involved, put themselves out. Let’s not give up on the milk of human kindness. During our recent floods, people helped others, strangers were transported, peoples mess cleared, all just out of a sense of kindness, a need to be supportive. People got involved. They want to help, but don’t want to put themselves at any risk, or do the ‘wrong’ thing by helping in an inappropriate way.

  3. Pingback: Baldness versus period pains « Me and the Girl from Clapham·

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