Monday, November 29, 2010

The Power of Asking for Help

How good are you at asking for help? How often do you say, "How can I help you?"

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.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Greatest Hope is to Give Back

The tiny but enthusiastic Women & Girls Fund of Middlesex County, Conn. needed money. They dared to ask Arianna Huffington if she would come to speak, and she said yes. Granted, it gave her a chance to visit her daughters along the way to this sleepy rural area, but saying yes reminded me once again what a true honor and privilege it is to write for The Huffington Post, and what a role model Arianna is for everyone who dares to blend brains and heart into one package.

Literally squeezing in time to speak before a live uplink to Larry King, Arianna spoke of the disconnect between the experience of everyday people and what is happening in Washington. For the first time in generations, two thirds of adults believe their children will be worse off financially than they are. The fundamental belief in upward mobility has shattered, and even the most hopeful are picking up the shards of "yes we can" with a deeply shaken resolve.

Many positive changes have been happening in our economy, but we seem unable to let the fear and finger-pointing go. Arianna posed the question: why do we, as individuals and as communities, continue to focus on our deficits? How does this serve us? Why not focus on our surpluses?

"Where is the abundance? She challenged. "With nearly 27 million people out of work, that means one out of six Americans is suffering. Yet, we have an abundance of time, skills and resources that are not being utilized. This is a moment of choice to take countervailing action."

We have been trained by 24/7 news to put a magnifying glass on what is not working. With the change of power, everyone is preparing themselves for a dirty couple of years of gridlock, mudslinging and righteous "Party of No" speeches that will surround our psyches like cicadas on a hot summer night.

Finger-pointing at Washington is somewhat cathartic, but in reality, most of us have a "party of no" going on inside our heads all day long. In fact, most people have thousands of negative thoughts per day! It takes work to turn those negative voices off and instead place the magnifying glass on what is working. Better yet, how about taking a step further and celebrating what is working?

Give back. Strengthening the lives of individuals in our communities is the way out. Inspiring others to do more opens up a life of collaboration and meaning. Out of work? Yes, it is horrendous, but in between the hours of job-hunting, get out in the community; take your skills and put them into action in some meaningful way. Being unemployed wounds the self-esteem so profoundly, the balm of useful work can build a bridge towards unimagined new opportunities that pull towards the future; instead of wallowing in the past.

Seth Reams was one of those unemployed folks in Portland, Oregon. He was becoming deeply depressed, until his girlfriend cajoled him to get out of his funk, put the job hunt aside, and start volunteering. He realized that there were so many people who needed help, and so many who had skills to give, decided to start an entity called We've Got Time to Help, which helps to place those with time and skills with those who need it. The Huffington Post named him a Game Changer, and now 75 cities across the U.S. and in four other countries want to start similar programs.

Dylan Ratigan introduced him at the Game Changer awards. Addressing the audience, Ratigan said:

Can you take the events that are beyond yourself and your own life and figure out a way to not let those events make you feel less powerful, to not let those events make you feel less able, but to utilize those events to empower not only yourself and making yourself more able, but to shift the entire psychology of the way that you deal with the world, from asking a question which is, 'Why did the world not give me this? What can the world give me? Why has the world not given me what I want?' and change that question to, 'What can I give to the world?' as an internal changing of the game, if you will.

Here is a clip of Ratigan introducing Reams, who is clearly stunned at the incredible chain of events that put him there:

In his most recent blog, Reams asks, "We, you and I, are game changers. Do you have the guts to change the game?"

Bryan Nurnberger is another person who took difficult circumstances and reinvented himself through a passion to give back. A professional rock climbing instructor in Colorado, Nurnberger sustained so many injuries that he could hardly close his fist. His career gone, he had no idea what to do next, so he decided to hike the mountains of Mexico. It was there that he stumbled upon an orphanage that captured his heart and changed his life.

He raised funds to help the orphanage, and then was led to a desperate area of the southern Mexican jungle. Over 500,000 people were starving to death, literally living on boiled leaves, as their coffee bean industry had been lost to big name corporations. Nurnberger took the matter to heart, raised more money by bringing people down to the villages with him, and started Simply Smiles. Nine years later, his passion project supplies a full month's provisions of food ($15,000 per month) to over 3,000 people. Some villagers literally walk 16 hours with their family each way to get there. The short-term relief is allowing them to rebuild their coffee crops, and Nurnberger now sells the delicious brew on his website. Need coffee? Check it out and know you are making a difference:

Whether it is converting unemployment depression into a new profession, or just lending a hand, we all can turn our lives around, and those of the people around us. I think the "greatest person of the day" award goes to Allen and Violet Large, a couple in Canada who won $11 million in a lottery and gave away 98 percent of it -- $10.6 million -- mostly to local fire departments, churches, cemeteries and the local Red Cross.

How has giving back helped you through a difficult time in your life? Do you have a passion project? Please drop a comment below and contribute to our weekly conversations. I will be writing more about passion projects in upcoming posts and just may feature your ideas and comments. Follow me by clicking "Become a Fan" at the top of this page.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Create the Space You Deserve

Have you ever stopped to think about your house, and the rooms within it, as a metaphor of your life? What is your relationship with your space -- do you love it, just live in it, or wish it could be different? How do you feel emotionally in the different rooms of your home? According to Jill Butler, author of Create the Space You Deserve, taking the time to explore how we feel in different rooms can become a profound inner journey.

Butler went through a divorce, downsized, and documentd her "Extreme Makeover" process of creating her dream space -- the space she deserved. Transition is often a time that triggers the need or desire for a new living space -- any sort of inner shift, celebration or milestone -- and while for some it is a new house, for others it starts with a single room.

"Take a moment and think about your favorite room in your house," Butler said, "And notice how you feel when you are in there." For me, my favorite room is my dining room, of all places. It was recently painted, has big windows, lots of light, and I love the family gatherings we have there.

Next, Butler advises that you think about the space in your house that you most dislike. How is it not working for you, and how do you feel in this space? For me, it is the joint office I share with my husband. Overloaded with unused software boxes, kid memorabilia, and papers everywhere, the space has a definite feeling of chaos. Often when I am writing, I just avoid it all together and sneak into my dining room with my laptop for my most creative work.

"This question about your relationship to your space is not a problem-solving issue but a naming issue," said Butler. "There is a reason people leave junk in their bedroom for 10 years that is deeper than simply being too lazy to shove them in the basement. It is reflection of something bigger."

Interestingly enough, some of the issues we grapple with in our lives are clearly reflected in these trouble spots within our homes. One woman shared that her basement was the space she struggled with. "Everything else is light and just the way I want it be," she mused, "but the inner world, the deepest inside parts of me, are not so bright and cheery at all." She later shared a revelation she had: her basement was linked to an inablilty to let go of worrying about her children, even though they were grown and gone. She is now considering revamping her basement into an art studio, just for herself.

For some, the challenge with a particular space is not so much the room itself but the stuff in it. "I think the whole country is re-evaluating their relationship with their stuff," said Butler. "We are all realizing we cannot afford so much stuff, and it doesn't make us happy in the end. Clearing crud is one of the hardest parts until we realize it drags down our energy and makes us feel bad about ourselves."

One couple decided that they had to "clear the clutter" in a spare room that doubled as a storage space and an office all at once. The husband had lost his job and was studying for a Master's degree. "I couldn't concentrate there!" he laughed. The coupled decided to have a "dumpster party." They pulled up a huge dumpster to the base of their house, opened up the window screens, and literally threw junk out the window, delighting in the sound of the crash as unwanted items landed in an ever-growing heap of relief. Sure enough, once the room was cleared, the thesis paper was completed in record time, and a job offer immediately followed.

With the foreclosure rate the way it is, many Americans have lost their homes or have had to consciously downsize. But the term "downsize" has such a negative connotation. Rather, how about "right-sizing" our homes? For Butler herself, moving from a 5,000-square-foot home to a 1,400-square-foot home was a celebration. "It is very freeing to let go."

Try out the exercise of identifying a room in your house that you dislike, and imagine what you can do to make friends with this space once again -- how can you "repair the relationship"? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1) Decide: Decide to change the space in some small way to get started, or in a large way like grabbing a dumpster. Making a choice to make a change in your physical space also initiates the inner process of change.

2) Look Around: Step back into that room with a fresh awareness of how it has become a reflection or metaphor for a part of your life that needs changing. Without having to spend a lot of money, what needs to be done first?

3) Rearrange: Sometimes nothing drastic has to be done, just a little rearranging. Maybe a single piece of furniture has to be moved around, removed, recovered or added to change everything entirely. I had a room that no one ever used, and I couldn't figure out why. By accident, we inherited a new leather chair I had no idea what to do with, and shoved it in this room temporarily. To my surprise, it created a harmony that was not there before, and suddenly the kids started reading in there, my husband and I started having after-dinner chats, and the room came to life.

4) Make Friends with What Is: Sometimes you inherit a house or a room that you can't stand, and there is nothing much you can do about it but change your attitude. One woman shared a story about how she sold her dream home to move out of state, hated it, and came back. The only house she could find was not at all her taste, but she had taken it and had silently resented it for years. With a new awareness that it was time to make peace with her house, she bought some sage, smudged the space, painted one room, bought some flowers, and that was enough. She claimed her space.

How about you, HuffPost readers? Is there a space in your house that is a "problem child?" what insights can it offer, and how have you changed your space structurally that led to a change personally? Love to hear your comments below.