“So,” asked Paula as we drove, “What have you learned from this first year of post-graduate life?” Paula (who also contributes to this blog) is just the sort of thoughtful and compassionately curious sort of person to ask such a reflective question.
I glanced out the window and replied some sort of answer about learning to be myself. However, upon greater thought, I realized this year taught me a far more valuable lesson: I learned the importance and the joy of asking for help.
I remember my teenage self, also while driving in a car, thinking I want to be an omnicompetent woman. I still love the word omnicompetent—the way your mouth has to twice encircle those o’s and then shut for a decisive, final “t”!
Like many oldest children, I enjoy contributing new information to any or all situations or discussions. I longed for the role of advisor, and scoffed at luckless know-nothings. Unfortunately, being young means you know next to nothing, so you can imagine how frequently my pride was hurt when I had to admit that I needed help.
I found the perfect example of this longing to be adult and sophisticated in the 1938 thriller Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which I read for the first time in high school. There’s this one scene where the desperately gauche heroine is driving along the coast of the French Riviera with the dashingly handsome and Byronically mysterious Maxim DeWinter, who has just laughed at one of her innocent comments. She immediately feels patronized and indebted.
What degradation lay in being young, I thought, and fell to tearing my nails. “I wish,” I said savagely, still mindful of his laugh and throwing discretion to the wind, “I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.”
Yes! That is it exactly, I thought during my first read of the story. Wouldn’t it be nice to just skip the awkwardness of being young and get to the secure sophistication of adulthood—pearls and all. The woman of about thirty-six wouldn’t be laughed at. She would know what to say to anybody. She wouldn’t misuse a new vocabulary word. She wouldn’t say dumb things in front of smart people.
Of course, with my increasing age came a bit more wisdom. In college, I got better at saying “I’m confused” and “I need help.” But still, I dreaded the time of year when I had to send out another round of requests for letters of recommendation. Ugh, I just don’t want to bother other people, I complained to my mom on the phone, I feel like an imposition. It’s so annoying to have to ask in the first place. I hate feeling so needy.
I began this year with yet more “independence.” (But, let’s be honest, this trait could also be called pride—its uglier name). I always tried to do the independent thing first—I’ll call my own tow-truck, I’ll look for my own apartment, I’ll find a job, I’ll pick a grad program.
But I learned that adulthood has absolutely everything to do with asking for help. I never actually found a job by myself. I had help: a kind suggestion, a good letter of recommendation, a friend who asked the right question at the right time.
I didn’t find my own apartment, or even pick my own grad program. I relied on other people to make these life accomplishments with me. People were happy to help, and sharing the burden lightened my steps and brought so much joy to the road.
I am writing this post from a suburb of Cleveland where my friend’s fiance’s parents are graciously letting me stay with them until I find permanent housing. I’m in the middle of setting up a new iPhone, which my housemate basically picked out and updated for me because I’m such a pumpkin-head when it comes to technology. My mattress and about a zillion boxes made the move in one trip because two of my saintly childhood friends from Illinois offered to help me move my things in their truck.
Tomorrow, I’ll commute to the first day of grad school orientation. When I get there, I’ll be the first to admit that I will need help. Let’s hope I’m less of a pill about asking for it in this new stage of life.
I hereby relinquish any grand delusions of omnicompetency—let them go the way of Peter Pan, independence, bootstrap pulling, and other childish fancies. The thirty-something woman with the pearls probably doesn’t know anything anyway.
It’s time to grow up and ask for help.