We went out to dinner recently with a family whose son, Jonah, was celebrating his 14th birthday.
After checking with his parents whether it would be all right to order something special, he chose steak and a double-baked potato, a step up from the burgers the rest of us ordered. When the meal came, Jonah, not a regular steak eater, found he didn’t care for it. His dad offered Jonah his own burger as a trade. Jonah, feeling bad about his decision, could not accept.
The five minutes that followed were an exchange of Jonah’s dad insisting he take the burger and Jonah insisting that the gift was unnecessary and that he was fine. Finally, Jonah relented, accepted the burger (which he said was delicious), his father ate the steak, and conversation at the table resumed.
When talking about the situation later with Jonah’s parents and my husband, Bill, I remarked that Jonah was such a considerate and thoughtful kid that he never wanted anyone to go out of their way for him. As we talked about it, all four parents agreed that Jonah’s response brought to light a phenomenon with which we were all familiar—the desire to refuse gifts or help.
The refusal of help can be a by-product of growth and maturity. Parents with young children spend years reminding their children to say “thank you” for the tremendous amount of help and gifts their kids accept (and sometimes demand) without a second thought.
From reminding kids to say thank you when they’re invited to a friend’s home to reminders to send thank-you notes for gifts from grandparents, building appropriate gratitude is a major goal of the first decade of parenting. If Jonah had been turning 8 rather than 14, he likely would have accepted his dad’s offer without a second thought, and his mom would have needed to remind him to say thank you for the trade.
But Jonah is not alone in his discomfort with assistance. As we mature, our eyes open to the idea that when something is done for us or given to us, it may come because of extra work or sacrifice on the part of someone else. Even if that work or sacrifice is minimal, we may feel it is unnecessary or we are unworthy of the time or effort.
A couple of months ago I learned that a friend, a mother of two, had been in the hospital for two days. I texted her that I’d bring over some chili for her family for the evening’s meal. She texted back, “That’s not necessary. I feel fine! I’ll probably be out by dinnertime.” A few texts later, after I pointed out that being in the hospital is an unusual occurrence and worthy of chili from a friend, no matter how fine she might feel, she said thank you and told me that her back door would be unlocked.
And while I may have shaken my head as I looked at the text from my hospitalized friend telling me not to bother, I know I am often just as at fault. Last summer, when our family was in crisis because our teenage daughter went missing for almost two weeks, I sometimes felt distressed by the amount of thoughtfulness, care, and sandwiches that poured onto our household during that time. Bill and I walked into our home one evening after flyering a neighborhood and found that a group had cleaned the whole house and filled the refrigerator. I felt a simultaneous rush of gratitude for their love and concern about how long it must have taken them to do this.
But the relentless nature of the pain of those 13 days and the people who stepped forward daily to help taught me something important about gratitude and accepting the service of others. Christianity teaches us to recognize that the act of service brings the grace of God to a situation. Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me. But what happens when we ourselves become the least? What happens when I’m the one who is hurt, lonely, or hungry? Our first impulse may be to prevent people from going out of their way for us. We may wish to deny our own brokenness by identifying others who need help more.
Yet, if we say no to the help being offered, we are blocking the opportunity for another person to experience the grace that comes with healing.
There is a humility we are called to each time we are presented with a gift we didn’t expect; a humility that comes with being the recipient of an act of service.
In that moment, we recognize ourselves as one of the “least” that Jesus spoke of—and it’s hard to admit to being among the least. Denying help when we need it is in essence shouting out, “I am not the least!” In refusing to allow ourselves to be categorized with the least, though, we are showing others who need help implicit disrespect. If I won’t accept help, what message does that send to those who need help and do accept it? Are they wrong to accept the help with gratitude?
To allow someone to help us often requires that we come to terms with our own vulnerability in a particular situation. And it is in that open space of vulnerability that God can move and lift up both the giver and the recipient of the gift. We have as an example Jesus himself, who allowed Martha’s sister, Mary, to anoint his feet with oil and Simon to carry his cross.
When we open ourselves to the help of others, they are often moved by the strength required in showing vulnerability. Those people who helped us are more likely to share their own pain and struggle when the time comes. Our relationships move from shiny and surface to having texture and depth. In the 11 months since our daughter returned from running away, some of the very people who helped with flyers and food during our family’s time of need have shared their own journeys with Bill and me in ways they likely would not have if they had not felt welcomed into our situation.
As my friends and I talked about Jonah’s predicament, we spoke about how every act of generosity requires someone else to have the grace to accept that generosity. We discussed how good it feels to help someone or give a gift and see that person shine with appreciation. Life’s bumps and curves require us to change positions from giver to recipient and back to giver with stunning frequency.
We agreed that in our families we would work on avoiding saying “no” to offered help during our moments of struggle. Instead, we would commit to letting in the grace of God with a strong and appreciative “thank you.”
This article also appears in the June 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 6, pages 43–44).