I just wasn’t raised in a home where asking for help was encouraged. Asking meant weakness. Vulnerability. Being needy. It meant being a burden to those around me. And in my moments where distress overcame fear and shame, and I did manage to muster up the courage to ask, it was rare that anything remotely helpful actually happened. So I trained myself to become as independent as possible, to not need others. And above all else never put myself in a situation wherein I felt like I was a burden.
But while on the road? While living in the homes of others and relying on total strangers for most my needs? I have to ask. Otherwise, I would never have clean clothes. I would never have wifi. I would never figure out how to use the coffee machine or the shower or the stove. All the things that settled people take for granted, I just wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t have them simply because I didn’t ask.
The irony is not lost on me. I’m terrified of asking for help, but I’ve somehow chosen a life wherein I have no choice but to ask. A life unfettered by commitments like jobs, family, community, but a life completely dependent upon others — where the kind of independence I learned as a child is not only useless to me but occasionally quite harmful.
I found myself in Galway in Western Ireland around Christmas a few years ago. I’d just completed three months of volunteer work on farms around Ireland and was celebrating my chickweed, beetroot-free days by Couchsurfing in the West for a week. It was pissing rain when my Bus Éireann pulled into the city. The west-coast wind pierced my thin rain jacket, chilling me through. I was knackered from weeks of harvesting spuds and my teeth knocked together from the cold. All I wanted in the world was to curl up with a voluminous blanket and a mug of steaming Earl Grey. But my host, a young woman named Sarah, was eager to take me on a night wander through her city.
I couldn’t bring myself to say no to the woman who had just opened up her home to me.
I don’t even have the proper shoes for this sort of adventure, I looked dolefully at my barefoot running shoes and imagined how the freezing puddles would seep into my socks. Shivering, I bundled up as best I could to brace the cold.
Within twenty minutes, I’d lost all feeling in my feet.
That’s probably not ideal…
But did I prioritize self-preservation and simply ask my host if I could hurry home to her flat?
Nope. My sad, cold feet didn’t stand a chance against my colossal fucking fear.
Sarah and I continued to walk through Galway for another three hours. By the time we finally stumbled home through her front door, my feet had swollen into plump red balloons chocked full of angry needles.
All because I wouldn’t ask to go home. I felt guilty telling Sarah that I was too bloody cold for her tour. I wouldn’t ask, “Hey, can we go out tomorrow when it might not be raining so hard?” I didn’t even ask if I could borrow the spare pair of wellies that were just standing there, unused.
It’s taken five and a half years of Couchsurfing, hitchhiking, and volunteering with families to work through my fear of asking. Five and a half years of nearly nonstop practice. Couchsurfing forces me to consistently ask for the little things. Towels, tea, use of a washing machine. Of course, it forces me to ask for the big things too: a place to sleep, safety, warmth. Staying with strangers for just a few days strips me of my independence and forces me to explore the vulnerability I feared so much as a child.
Hitchhiking takes the art of asking to the next level (and I’ve had to confront so many fears while putting my thumb out). When Couchsurfing, I can try to give back to my hosts (and feel like less of a burden) by making a delicious bananes flambées, leading them through a yoga routine, or telling them that crazy story about the one time I volunteered with a woman from North Devon who communed with aliens every Sunday. When I hitchhike, I have nothing to offer. I am asking within a vacuum, hoping that some random human being will stop what they’re doing and pick up another random human being who looks like they might need a bit of help.
I’m asking people to give for the sake of giving.
And I’ve discovered that even though I was raised in a world where gifts were put in a ledger, to be repaid at a later date, there are people who don’t want to live in that world. There are people who will happily pull over and give me a lift for the sake of giving me a lift.
If I hadn’t decided to explore my fear, I would never have experienced this side of human goodness. This pure kindness, unadulterated by expectations.
Asking isn’t a sign of weakness. Asking isn’t vulnerability and it doesn’t necessarily make you a burden. Asking gives you the opportunity to discover the goodness of others, and it gives others the opportunity to discover that goodness within themselves.
So ask. The worst that can happen is a no. The best that can happen is an experience of that rare, perfect gift that is given for its own sake.
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