A group of scuba divers and snorkelers were observing manta rays deep in the sea off Hawaii one night last year when one of them got an unusual request – from a bottlenose dolphin entangled in fishing line.
“The way he came right up and pushed himself into me there was no question this dolphin was there for help,” explained the diver who responded to the cry. Not only did the dolphin clearly “ask” for help, he said, but it waited patiently for about 8 minutes until its fin was freed.
So is there a lesson in this tale of The Dolphin Who Asked For Help? (Aside from illustrating the dangers of leaving fishing line or hooks behind in the sea. Note that the researcher who liberated the dolphin was carrying a knife in case he too got trapped in underwater litter.)
The story certainly vindicates the famous expression about no man – or other mammal – being an island.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
– John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624
But what I’m most interested in is this: if an animal can manage to reach out to fellow creatures for assistance, why do we humans often find it difficult?
Fear seems to be a major obstacle to asking for help. We may be afraid of seeming weak, burdening others, exposing our incompetence or being rejected. Pride and embarrassment can fuel worries that needing help will make others think less of us.
Yet when we’re asked for help and are able to give it, this can make us feel good. Which can in turn prompt us to more readily reach out to others next time we find ourselves in need.
It’s no surprise that the reluctance to ask for help gets worse as we get older. The Beatles sang about it nearly 50 years ago.
When I was younger,
so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone,
I’m not so self-assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind
and opened up the doors.
– lyrics from title song of 1965 Beatles film Help
Although the title song of the Beatles’ film Help was credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it was apparently written mainly by Lennon. He revealed in an interview that he wrote these lyrics when he himself was fat and depressed.
Later, I knew I really was crying out for help. It was my fat Elvis period. You see the movie: He — I — is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself.
– John Lennon, Playboy magazine interview, 1981
Who knew that the seemingly self-assured superstar was once fat and depressed? Who knew that this song was Lennon’s own cry for help?
Back when we were so much younger than today we may not have needed as much help. But now that those days are gone we often do. To lift heavy things. To deal with computers or cellphones. Some days we can do with a helping hand just to get up from a low seat.
Interestingly, it can be most difficult to ask for help from members of our own family. Especially our children. A recent British study on “well-being in old age” showed that that the dynamic around asking for or accepting help from adult sons and daughters is especially tricky. It’s a kind of parent-child role reversal that doesn’t sit well as we age. It reminds us that the days are long gone when they were kids and we did things for them. And if we needed a bit of help ourselves, we happily instructed them to do things for us. Now we’ve got to screw up our courage and ask.
That UK study shows that uneasiness around asking for help is linked to expectations. “If the request for help and the support received is positive, it lessens the sense of feeling a burden,” the researchers concluded. “And people can experience well-being from being well cared for.”
The online how-to manual WikiHow includes a how-to on helping elders in a step-by-step guide. I like the step that cautions against doing things for older people that they can do for themselves. “Avoid assuming helplessness” – that really hits a nerve.
With no trace of irony the manual advises: “Don’t give unwanted advice”. Which is probably the best advice of all. Especially when taken together with this further advice to would-be helpers of the aging: “When you want to be helpful, ask if the help is wanted.”
Yes, please ask. And listen very carefully to the reply. Bearing in mind how hard it can be for older people to simply say: “I need help – please!”
Lastly (cliché alert) it’s worth recalling that oft-quoted tip about help:
Be strong enough to stand alone,
smart enough to know when you need help,
and brave enough to ask for it.
It would be great to still be strong, smart and brave as we move into old age. If not, we should be able to get by with a little help from our friends and family – and occasionally even strangers. All we need to do is ask.