The fact is, there are more Americans than ever who need help, but asking for it is considered impolite, a burden, a sign of weakness or simply poor taste. As we move into the winter, many food banks are 100-percent below the stocks required to feed the burgeoning wave of middle-class citizens who cannot put food on the table. One in six is out of work, and a majority of our staple industries are on the list of imminent extinction.
Millions of Americans are being forced to reexamine their career, lifestyle, finances, and goals. Finishing the kitchen with a Viking stove and granite countertop is no longer a priority, because the house is about to go into foreclosure. Stable jobs of 25 years are gone, and the climate of "every man for himself" just will not cut it anymore. The sooner we stop using our fingers to point at one another and instead extend them in a handshake, the faster we can put our innovative brilliance to work to generate new jobs, revamp the bitter climate of our government, and start getting things done.
The fences we have built around our homes and intimate lives are fundamentally counterintuitive, given the community-driven nature we experience naturally as human beings. In fact, new studies suggest that the best way to reduce stress and anxiety is with the secretion of oxytocin, a largely misunderstood little hormone. However, it does not activate when we are alone. Oxytocin is secreted when we recognize images that trigger caring, engage in nurturing activities, or are around other people. We literally need to be with each other to relieve stress.
Remember the days of just popping into a neighbor's house for a cup of sugar without thinking twice? We have to get back to that place. It is impossible to rebuild a new life in an uncertain world alone. We have to learn to ask for help, trust each other, and be willing to stick our necks out to give another a hand. There is so much to do, and we can start by asking for help.
I help run a local organization for women business leaders. It seems that women, in particular, are pretty lame in the asking-for-help category. Yet when an environment is created that is professional, casual and deliberately supportive, mountains move! All a woman has to do is be brave enough to throw out a quiver of a request: "Does anyone know someone who understands Twitter?" We all know what happens next. The six degrees of separation swirl into action, and within three minutes flat, she is all set.
This concept of naturally sharing our skills and bartering for services has developed into a system called "time banking" and is flourishing in Portland, Maine. More than 600 people have exchanged over 20,000 hours of time through the Portland Hour Exchange. Anyone can list various skills or services they can provide, such as a ride to the airport, handyman services, massage, or web design consultations. One hour of time is donated to someone who needs it, and then that hour is "deposited" into the system, which then can be exchanged for another service that you may want or need sometime down the road.
Check out this excerpt from a new PBS special called "Fixing the Future" that aired this past Friday:
Literally everyone has some sort of skill or ability that is valuable to someone else. All it takes is the power of asking to put the wheels of true community back into motion. As one of the exchange members said while giving a sailing lesson, "it is like we are remembering how to be in community instead of creating it."
Most of us share time and services without even realizing it. An acquaintance and I bumped into each other last week, and in the midst of our standard hellos, she said, "Did I ever thank you?" As I blinked at her in complete brain fog, she went on to recap a conversation we had had regarding a challenge she was having with her teenage daughter. She had asked if I had any ideas to help, and I had instantly referred her to a friend of mine who works with adolescents as a therapist.
These types of interactions happen to all of us every single day; they take no time and are second nature. Yet, rarely do we have a chance to glimpse the impact of such a simple act. My friend sent her daughter to this therapist, and she has made a miraculous turnaround. Had she been embarrassed to ask for help, nothing would have changed. How often do you run into someone you know, they ask you how you are, and the answer is always, "Fine." Why do we say this even when we are far from fine? All around us are people who are available to help us in some way. The challenge is being brave enough to ask.
Rebuilding our nation is not going to happen in Washington, D.C. but in our own backyards, and in the faith we can rebuild in one another as resources and support systems for one another. It is time to break the social pressure to be more and have more, and return to the graciousness of our forefathers, who were always quick and willing to lend a hand, build a barn or barter for goods and services.
As Thanksgiving approaches, many who needn't be alone will be. The simple question of "what are you doing for Thanksgiving?" can lead to a revelation. If three or four people you know are doing nothing, why not share a table together? Turkey is optional! Instead of being alone and isolated, create a shared meal. It inspires a community feeling and is a symbolic knitting of our underlying fabric. Grab another table, ignore the dust, and invite the neighbors over: bigger is better.
This week, think about creating your own time bank. Is there something you need help with? Whom can you ask, and what would happen if you did? On the flip side, what can you do to help someone who may not be brave enough to ask? "Ask and you shall receive" is the cornerstone of gratitude, and the foundation of Thanksgiving. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.