The Hardest Words

When I regularly attended services at a small Mennonite church, I asked the pastor how he came up with good sermon material week after week. This is probably the clerical equivalent of “Where do you get your story ideas?” He said that, in addition to the scripture lined up for that Sunday, there were books of canned sermons and lists of common topics.

puss in boots“You know,” he said, “the Ten Commandments, the Twelve Hardest Words, the Interview with Saint Peter… that sort of thing.”

My Catholic upbringing had apparently left some gaps. “What are the twelve hardest words?”

“I am sorry, please forgive me, I was wrong, I love you. They’re on bumper stickers and all over the internet.”

Maybe written on the bathroom walls in seminaries? I’d never come across that list, but I’ve recently seen an internet post about compassion, generally, and it lists as the hardest words, “Help me.”

Sallie kochNot twelve words, but two. “Help me.” I surely do not say those words very often if I can avoid them. The last time I can remember saying them in a significant way was about twenty years ago, when I’d been laid off, I had a toddler to look out for, and I’d missed a mortgage payment. I was on the phone to my parents, putting on the brave face about starting my own law practice–slow, but coming along!–when my dad closed the conversation the way he has closed so many.

“Well, Grace, do you need anything?”

I got up the courage to ask for some help with the mortgage, and Dad practically ran to the airport in his bare feet and yanked a jet out of the sky to get that money to me. Twenty years and hundreds of mortgage payments later, I still recall that conversation… and my dad’s offer of help.

“Help me,” is complicated. It touches on pride, certainly, but it also entails risking that we’ll be judged for needing help, rejected for being less than self-sufficient, and miserably disappointed when our request cannot or will not be answered with aid.

let me in, pleaseSo here’s my challenge to me, who has been helped by so many, in so many ways. This week, I will look around me, and instead of waiting for somebody to grow desperate enough to ask me for help, I will offer: “Is there anything I can do help? What can I do to help?”

I will spare the other person any  uncertainty about whether they deserve help, or whether I want to help, and I’ll make the offer. I was endlessly, bottomlessly relieved to have my parents’ support all those years ago, but I might have lost my house before I found the words to ask for their assistance if Dad hadn’t asked me first.

Are the words, “help me,” hard for you? Are there even more difficult words? Has someone spared you having to ask, the way my parents spared me?

To three commenters, I’ll send $25 Amazon gift cards.


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55 comments on “The Hardest Words

  1. I was brought up to always help — stick my nose in the middle of it and if I had it, then I was to help. But, over the years, I have learned that usually when I ask for help, there is none to be had. I have one friend who will go out of her way — when she can — to lighten my burden and I thank God for her every single day. I don’t mind much anymore.

    • Mandy, you hit it on the nose: What if we ask, scrape up all our dignity and hope and courage, and ASK for help, and get a rejection? I recall somebody once offering to look after my daughter for me–single parents never get a break–and the conversation degenerated into her showing me her daytimer, and how busy she was with church activities like choir, committee meetings, making coffee while the menfolk repainted the lines in the parking lot…

      I made nice-nice noises, but I’ve never forgotten her insensitivity.

      Is there anything we can do to help?

  2. I agree, “I need help” is very hard to admit, and especially to close family. You hate to admit that you cannot do something on your own. I have been in this situation a few times, and it is a matter of letting go of your pride and asking, I have found any time I had the courage to ask for help, many people were more than willing to help. I agree, we need to look around, it is easy to see where there are those that need a little help, but are afraid to ask.
    I enjoy your blog and love to read the comments.
    Thank you.

    • And now, when I ask my parents, “What do you need? Is there anything I can do help?” They’ll know I’m following their example, and hopefully, that will make the conversation less difficult.

  3. I find it hard to ask for help. It has always drove my family crazy. I have to be sinking before I will put out my SOS. Since my parents raised me this is a characteristic they are well aware of. When I had my first baby, they brought her in the room after she had been weighed, measured and thoroughly checked out. The nurse ask me if I needed any help with feeding her and I told her no. This was my first baby and I knew absolutely nothing! I told my husband that we’d figure it out ourselves. I said it can’t be harder than feeding a baby kitten and Mom would be back on the morning. She made it through the night just fine with her silly Mom. Lol! It is still a joke with my husband that I will not ask for help and I think newborn babies are like kittens. 🙂

    • Maybe because I’m sixth out of seven, I’m very distrustful of people who are intent on explaining anything to me. My continued survival depended on figuring things out for myself. I’m hard to teach in this regard, though knowing it helps some.

      And it means I get those foster children, who’ve been managing on their own more or less since birth, when their parents didn’t figure out the basics, and didn’t care to ask anybody either.

  4. Six months pregnant with twins, and their “father” broke up with me and moved out. I had no income, no job, and now no way to buy everything I needed for my babies. My dad told me to move in with him. My ex-husband started sending me money for basic neccessities. My best friend and her husband, who were going through bankruptcy, started going to yard sales. By the time it was all said and done, I received so much help that I didn’t have to buy anything except carseats. For the first six months, everything was taken care of by others, even diapers and wipes. My pride was torn, but for my children, I’d do anything.

    • Candice, what a tale. Babies are about love, they just are. My daughter did me a similar service. I was oh, so independent, taking the world by storm, a monument to determination and unprocessed baggage. Herself got me sorted out, though it took years.

      Good on you, Mama. Exceedingly good on you!

  5. For me, saying “no, I can’t do that” are the hardest words. Whenever I’m asked to do something, I say “yes”, regardless of how difficult it is, busy I am or overwhelmed I may be. Learning how to say, “no, I can’t do that” was very hard – still gives me trouble – but I’m learning that its OK to not do everything and not feel guilty about it!

    • No is a hard word, Kim, you’re absolutely right. Took me FOREVER to figure out that the people who disappear when I say no, they were in my life when they wanted to take something from me, and only when they had that agenda. If the occasional no costs me somebody’s entire association, I’m the better for it.

  6. Those are two very hard words for me and even when I do ask for help, I feel terrible for needing to ask. Fortunately, I have 5 wonderful people in my life who don’t wait for me to ask, my parents, one of the pastors at my church and his wife and you can most likely guess who the other one is. I am blessed beyond measure by these five.
    Two years ago lying in a hospital bed, not knowing what was going on with me, I had one of the most wonderful no need to ask for help conversations with Pastor P. and his wife. They blew me away with everything they had figured out about my life and it was a little humbling to know that the act I had thought I performed so well wasn’t as well acted as I thought. They have been such a help and blessing to me ever since.
    I also remember 6 years ago sitting at a table with a developmental pediatrician who was re-evaluating the twins. The twins were happily playing with the toys in the room and I was answering all the doctors questions about them and listening to her observations about them. She looked me right in the eye and said to me “And what kind of help are you getting for yourself?” I was stunned. This follow-up appointment was not for me it was for my boys. I was doing everything I could do not only for them, but also for my almost 3 year old son, as well. What did I need help with? She then spent the next half an hour talking to me about what I did to relax and did I ever get a break from the boys, how was my health, how was my emotional/mental health, how was my marriage (oh boy)? In the end she had me convinced that I needed help in so many ways and that if I didn’t get that help from outside sources I was heading for a meltdown. It was the start I needed.

    As for helping others, I do try to help where I can, but a lot of time my life gets in the way of being able to help the way I would like.

    • Interesting, Sarah, that you mention two instances when nobody had to do much of anything, but SEE YOU CLEARLY, and listen to you. I expect you return that favor a lot more often than you know, to your boys, your extended family, those around you.

      When you’ve struggled on your own, hard and long, you can either become greedy and mean about it, or generous in your compassion for others similarly struggling. The proof of your choice is in those children.

  7. You do so give me food for thought. I don’t often answer publicly but I do answer in my head.
    I just erased the latest “help” example – story is way too long. I too am the type that hates to ask for help. In the last few years it has happened several times through health issues for me and the hubby. It is humbling, but I cherish those folks who volunteered time, food and good cheer. I was brought up to help, and I do but I now realize what a special thing it is when some one walks in with cheer and hands you your dinner for the night.

    • Georgie, I became aware when I started practicing family law that our society values self-sufficiency almost above all else. When a spouse has lot time in the work force to child rearing at home, the alimony awarded so that spouse can become self-supporting again (by going back to school, getting training or certification)is called “rehabilitative alimony,” as if time raising children is backsliding, compared to time racking up earning ability.

      Same with Temporary Cash Assistance, or welfare. No matter if she has young children at home, no matter if she has special needs young children at home or vulnerable elderly relatives who need her care, a woman (or man, for that matter) receiving TCA must PROVE she’s pursuing outside employment or her benefits will stop. We clearly value the ability to make coin over compassion and love.

      Makes me crazy. For what it says to the mom bagging groceries for minimum wage, what it says to the children placed in the care of strangers, what it says to the old folks whose worst fear is a nursing home.

      • Rants are welcome… You are so correct. When the community/church and family were the one’s who helped each other sustain life, there was compassion and mostly the feeling of relief when there was help. I grew up where in many of my friends house 3 generations were in the same home, and that home had already been passed down a couple of times. All of that is much different today. From the farm to the factory’s in WW2 started a slide that has not stopped. I found many of my 13 aunts and uncles finally returned to “home” after retirement, but all their kids and grands are far flung.. Sad!

  8. I agree, it seems like admitting you need help & asking for it somehow feels like others think you aren’t good/strong enough & they look down on you. In 2006 I sold a house & I didn’t mind helping anyone who needed it. They (family, friends) didn’t mind taking it, but giving it ..not! When 2008 came along .. I got sick & needed help to pay rent, electricity, food, etc. No one in my family could/would help me & my daughter (they had excuse after excuse) I was brought up to believe in family! They are there for each other, always (yeah, right). I have to say ‘strangers’ are more willing to help than some blood families. That’s when I learned it wasn’t shameful to ask for help. Churches, food banks, salvation army, social services, etc. are out there to help you. All you have to do is look & ask! It has been a hard time for my daughter & me, with my illness, but we’ve learned a hard lesson .. family isn’t always the one you are born in .. family is who are there for you, sometimes blood- sometimes strangers. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help, everyone needs a hand now & then! I am thankful every day for those who give to others!! Maybe some day we can help them!

    • Learning to create family of choice is a defining moment for many of us, and it always involves a loss of faith in at least some of the people sharing our genes. Glad you looked elsewhere, Leann, and maybe when the next person in your family falls ills, you can lead that bunch by example in a different direction.

  9. I grew up poor, but alway had just what I needed, nothing above and beyond, but we always made sure to help others in our family who just needed a little more. Today I still do the same. I still have just what I need again I don’t have more than that because I can’t financially afford any thing special but I pray one day I will, but I clean my freezer and cupboards out ever few months and take what I haven’t used and share with my other family members who I know won’t ask for help but whom I know who need the help and carry the boxes and bags into their homes and see their eyes light up. These family members never know when I am going to show up it could be months or days, but for some reason, God gives me the energy to get the task done and when I do I see my elders eyes light up with glee. My heart warms because I know though I don’t have much but giving the little I have to them to make sure they eat as well, God will provide for me.

    • Alisha, I’m the same way, but as much as we need to be independent, we also, all of us, need to feel useful and valued. When we help other people, we get that affirmation.

      When I’m in a tight corner, I try never to refuse help. If somebody offers, then I find something, no matter how small, they can do to pitch in. I feel less alone and crazy, the problem shrinks, and my pride and independence are generally not that much the worse for enduring some caring.

  10. As a young recently divorced single mother of 2 preschoolers, I was overwhelmed with the responsibility that was now mine alone. I was 32 years old with a car payment and ins, first and second mortgage, childcare for two and all the rest of the normal bills. I had been raised in a large family of German decent and pride. We were taught self reliance, but love of family. One day my oldest brother came to visit me. He asked if I had any of my coin collection left. I had some, but very little left. He told me that if I ever got into a position where I needed to sell the coins, to call him first and he would buy them. He stressed this and made me promise. Then came the day…. I called. He responded with more than I could have hoped. I never questioned how much he paid me, I trusted him completely. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that he had paid me about 4 times the value of the coins…. but just enough to get me out of the whole… Pride intact.

  11. Help me is indeed the hardest words for me to say. My father says it is my pride and I doubt he is wrong about that. I have promised him that I will ask for help when I need it but I think he and I see have different views of when that will be >.< Hopefully I will be able to ask if it ever comes to losing the house or putting food on the table.

    • Kassandra, I once spent a lot of time with a therapist who said, “if you need something to be happy, then you NEED it.” That means I need more and less than the mortgage and the grocery bill paid. Sometimes I need someone to listen, somebody to share a joke… that list is long.

      Big Mortgage Bank will still probably manage to be happy if my payment is late (interest AND late charges!), but I might need to send that money to my kid to be happy.

  12. My husband & I try to be self-sufficient & keep our family’s issues to ourselves. However, recently, we have been having problems keeping up with the bills. My mother offered to help & I said yes out of desperation. I hope to pay her back at some point, although she said it wasn’t necessary. The shoe has been on the other foot, to a certain extent. It really is hard to ask for help & much easier if someone offers. I can’t help anyone financially at this point, but I try to help out physically if I can.

    • Sorry the wolf has parked himself at your mailbox, Sharlene, but I’m glad you mom could shoo him off. Your mom really, really, REALLY wants to help, and will feel better because you let her pitch in. As my parents tell me, and I tell my kid, I can’t take it with me, and there’s nobody else I’d rather see getting use out of my money.

  13. You always ask the gut wrenching questions, Grace! I will stay in many a sorry situation before I would ask for help. Sad I know. Unfortunately, it’s a learned experience and for me, emotions always seem to override logic.

    • You put me in mind of a certain cat who hangs out on my property. It can be single digits, every other creature has ducked into the living for the night through the perma-kitty-door, but there he is out on the porch, waiting for spring…

      For me, the tendency has been to stay in relationships that take a lot more than they give, but I’ve gotten smarter about that over time. Some of us just need to spend a few more winters on the porch before we’ll heed the siren call of the wood stove.

  14. Yikes! very hard words, indeed. Many years ago, an older friend of mine gave me the excellent advice that not only should I offer aid to others, but when I accept aid, I am giving the gift of “helping” to the other person.

    • If I thought my daughter was in need, and she didn’t let me know it, I would have bad Mommy Guilt. It’s not rational, but to some extent, that’s being a parent (for me).

      We need to be loved, but the older I get, the more I’m aware we need people who let us love them, too. Grandkids make more sense to me viewed through that lens.

  15. I was wrong is something I don’t like to have to say, and I try not to by not being wrong. But I’m human, so I do make mistakes, and I try to apologize and admit I was wrong when I need to. Help me is definitely a hard phrase for me, I’m very independent and I agonize over having to ask for help. Right now I’m getting ready to go on vacation, and I’ve been putting off going to my neighbors and asking them to watch my house, pick up my mail, and monitor my pool for me while I’m gone. It’s not such a big thing, it should take about 5 minutes a day, and they’ve asked me to watch their house before, but the little extra tasks I’m asking seems like such an imposition on my kind neighbors. I do try to remember to ask if someone needs help when I can, but I don’t always remember, even though I’m very willing to lend a hand if needed.

    • Barbara, I think some of it is cultural. When our parents stepped off the Mayflower or reached Ellis Island, they HAD to be self-sufficient or the rigors immigrant life, and conquering the wilderness would have done them in. We’re programmed to value self-sufficiency tremendously, and because of that, we don’t always have the strongest sense of community. Somebody has to be willing to lean, or we’re not neighbors, we’re just lonely, independent people living on the same street.

  16. Grace those are two of the hardest words I know of but a couple of months ago I found the courage to ask one of the ladies at my church for help. This past Thursday she came through, I’ve been needing a good mattress and haven’t been able to afford one and even if I could buy one I’d have no way to get it home. On Thursday I was asked “Can us use a full size box springs and mattress”? Stunned, I hesitated then answered “Yes, I’d love to have them”. The couple donating them. along with their son and grandson delivered them today. I don’t have them in the bedroom yet as I’m completely rearranging it but I’ll get them set up tomorrow.
    The other two words I find hard, at times, to say are “Thank you”. It can be very difficult to deliver a very heartfelt thank you to someone, such as the couple who brought me the mattress set, but I’m learning how to do so slowly but surely.

  17. I’m not so great at asking for help, but sometimes it just has to be done! I’ve had to ask my dad for money a couple of times in the last 15 years and it’s torture, but he always helps. I like to help others, but your post made me realize I don’t ask others if there’s anything I can do enough. I’m going to work on that.

  18. Having been to seminary several times, I would like to reassure you that those 12 words are not written on the backs of loos in any bible college I have been too. But these words come up time and time again in conversations, ( at least the ones I have). But then so does help me, more often I think then all the rest.
    Pastor’s should ask it too, ( it takes bucket loads of humility and vulnerability to do so) and often the congregation cannot do enough to help. It amazes me that people want help and are not thinking that I am a burden or resentful of the needs I have.
    I crashed my car months back, and tried to keep it quiet. For my efforts I got a sound telling off from one of my parishioners for not letting people help and that it was wrong of me to keep people from blessing me. So as hard and as scary as it is, I am learning to say those to little words, “Help Me!”

    • Shannon, an awful lot goes back to that wounded healer stuff, doesn’t it? and walking the talk… Somebody else will crash their car, or their marriage or their recovery, and they’ll be more likely to call you because you’re in borrowed wheels.

      But pastoring is hard, hard work, and for all you know, some wretch on the back pew thinks “get the pastor” is just another indoor non-contact sport, along with Bible ping-pong, and “isn’t it a shame.” Glad you spoke up, and glad the troops came through for you.

  19. Chronic Illness has taught me to use “help me” both in times of need and to offer help before being asked for it. Sometimes it is still difficult to ask, despite the fact every time I ask I get a positive response. It may be a I can help (y) way, not (x) way, but always help. Accepting interdependence is creating a much better quality of life than clinging to hell-bent independent.

  20. What a great topic. I was just reflecting on these ideas when I was considering all the work I needed to accomplish for upcoming holidays. It all seems overwhelming, and the fact that my husband came up with the idea of cleaning the house this weekend gave me such a sense of relief, I was giddy for a second. It was nice not to have to ask him and worry about putting him out.

  21. Harder than “I need help…” for me is “I was wrong…” I was reading a commentary recently that said all sin begins with the sin of pride. It certainly does for me. I am a well-seasoned adult, and I still hate to be wrong. : )

    • Susan, is it always pride? Or is it sometimes a reluctance to be rejected and belittled one more time? The same parents who wrote a mortgage check for me so easily when I was in my thirties were nowhere near as responsive or generous as younger parents. They had seven children underfoot, and could be REALLY mean for reasons no child could possibly grasp.

      Pride comes into it, but I don’t think it’s always the whole story.

  22. I always find it’s not so much the “help me” but the “hear me” that is the hardest. I always end up very stressed from biting my tongue so much!
    If I ask for help please don’t help how YOU think would be best but rather hear how I’m asking for the help that I need. Chronic illnesses have a way of breaking you down so you DO need to ask for help but I could do without the helpful(Ha!) hints and tips from healthy (never dealt with long term illness before)helpers however much I appreciate the helping!

    • Excellent point, Carrie. “Help me,” is not sophisticated code for, “Get yer halo polished here, doing as you please and ignoring what I really asked of you!”

      Hope you’re having mostly good days, whatever the nature of the ailment.

  23. I have to say, I was in a predicament somewhat similar to you, Grace. I hate asking for help.

    H-A-T-E it.

    So when I screwed up big time with my own mortgage and was about to be foreclosed on, it was a blessing in disguise when a certified letter (read signature required) showed up at my parent’s house. My Dad had co-signed the loan with me and when letter after letter went to my place and was unopened, as a last resort they sent it to him.

    When I say last resort, I mean I had about a month to straighten everything out. I’d like to say that I had “hardship” or that I lost my job or something drastic had happened, but in reality, I was lazy and just a bit overwhelmed with the reality of owning a home in a city where I didn’t know anybody, all my fronds and family were an hour away and I was lonely.

    I hadn’t paid bills in months.

    I had even moved back in with my parents to escape the letters and phone calls.

    So when my Dad called me at work one sunny Saturday in November and asked if I was in trouble and if I still owned the house, I burst into tears at my desk. I have to say, it was a relief to finally “come clean”. So much added stress was taking its toll on my health that was at the end if my rope.

    He bailed me out. Literally. He borrowed against my mother’s retirement in order for me to pay what was owed. He made it possible for me to keep my house.

    I didn’t have to ask.

    I didn’t have to say anything or make excuses or justify what had happened. He accepted that people make mistakes and learn from them.

    And for that I am eternally grateful.

    • Wow. You get really high marks in the “chose the right parents” category, and they get high marks in the “raised the right kid” category. You didn’t take advantage of them, and they didn’t lose faith in you. Wonderful!