“When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way,
But now these days are gone and I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors.
Help me if you can …” (Lennon/McCartney)
Charity. Compassion. Generosity. Solidarity. Whatever you call it, “help” is loaded with complicated emotions. My parents were part of the World War II generation, and it sure didn’t seem like they needed much of it. Mortgages were cheap, jobs with benefits were plentiful, and saving was possible. When that proverbial “rainy day” arrived, they were ensconced in a secure, waterproof shelter. They seemed utterly immunized against vulnerability. And I grew up expecting that I would lead the same life.
Historical perspective tells us the extent to which they benefited from the “help” of millions of workers, heroes who fought and sacrificed so that future workers could have those benefits that afforded them a standard of living that enabled them not to need “help.” I knew these things in an academic way, but in times of great duress and wrenching vulnerability, we are informed far more by our gut and barely at all by our intellect.
And my gut told me that to need help was to be a failure. Millions of others had provided for their families in a seemingly independent way, the way that we were told was the appropriate consequence of right living.
But now those days are gone, indeed. And “self assured” is the very last thing I’ve felt of late.
Through a series of events that are most remarkable only in how commonplace they are, my family and I have been struggling for years to survive in a manner that resembles nothing so much as that fabled Sisyphean task. We labor and fight and exhaust ourselves pushing the boulder of debt and expensive health care and housing up the hill, broiling under a merciless plutocratic sun, only to topple to the bottom and crash, despairing of finding the will or the strength to try again.
The details aren’t particularly important or interesting. Dental bills, car repair, school bills, trying to run a small business in a struggling economy — they are pretty similar to myriad stories all around the United States. No front-page type tragedies here, just the tragedies of quiet despair that afflict millions of American workers. I could not pay my bills. Sometimes my utilities were turned off. Sometimes my garbage was not collected. Creditors grew nasty and harassed me. Sometimes they threatened me. My teeth went unrepaired, as did my roof. Scrambling to tread water, I knew what would happen if that water rose above our heads. I’d seen many others slide beneath the surface and never reemerge.
Every morning, I’d wake up feeling strangled. Looking down the road more than a few days brought panic attacks. And I felt as gut-shreddingly alone as that hapless survivor of a nuclear attack in the old “Twilight Zone” episode.
It’s difficult to describe the foul stew of emotions that marinate around those plunged into these circumstances.
What would be best, the solution of the highest order, would be for someone to offer help, born of genuine concern and not pity, someone who understood that things are rarely as easy as they are perceived to be. Someone who wouldn’t think less of you for your struggle. But in this world, it seems you’d be more likely to encounter a unicorn by a crystal stream.
A few months ago, disoriented, depressed and utterly at a loss for solutions, I found myself on a precipice. But amazingly, that unicorn showed up. It wasn’t magic. Despite having plenty of problems of her own, my friend acted. One day, in the mail, along with the usual late notices and frightening bills, I found a manila envelope. In the envelope were gift cards, eight of them, worth $25 each. These cards were for groceries.
I bought things that I needed and things that I wanted. And for the first time in months, I felt — like a regular person, competent, a person with a task and means to accomplish it.
More cards arrived. And every week, I bought groceries. They arrived when I needed them the most, and they were an enormous practical help. But they were much more. They gave me something a lot more useful than even the groceries I dragged home. They told me I was not alone. Somebody cared enough to help me, without making me feel shame, or a failure, or a burden.
I realized that though not everyone has a friend who can help them when they most need it, everyone should. As human beings, we are indeed entitled. The word “entitlement” has been smeared, just like the word “liberal” or, God forbid, “socialist.”
But just like those package directions that tell us, “For best results …,” proceed as follows. And to get through this life with hope, and dignity and joy and purpose, do it in community. Do it in solidarity with those who can help you and whom you can help. Work to create a society where all of us have that security that comes from knowing that, in times of trouble, we’re not alone.
We deserve institutions of government that recognize this, that assure us that when we need assistance, we’ll have food, shelter, health care. We’ll have the support of those who can help, and, in turn, when we can, we will help others. We do not have to live in a landscape out of “Lord of the Flies.” Community — the ultimate family value.
Lori Challinoir (email@example.com) is a peace and justice activist and working mother of two in the Chicago suburbs.