During his year abroad, my friend Terence was descending stairs in one of the busiest subway stations in Japan. He stumbled and fell.
He told me he tumbled like you’d imagine a cartoon character falling down stairs: spinning and bouncing down two long flights before he reached bottom. He lay like a tangled marionette there, bruised and bleeding, his leg broken.
He waited for someone to help him.
No one stopped.
Person after person passed him by, avoiding eye contact, not acknowledging him or even asking him if he were all right.
After he realized that no one would help him, he gathered himself, limped onto the subway made it back to his host family’s house.
At home, he told his host mother that no one had stopped, and she said, “Oh, I’m so glad.”
He looked at her in disbelief. “What?”
“Well, it was so kind of them to keep you from being dishonored. Because of course, if they’d helped you, you would have been in their debt. And they knew that as a foreigner, it would be very difficult to go buy the presents necessary to repay them, and that you would not know how to speak to them in the proper way. So they knew it was better not to help, so you would not be dishonored by being indebted to them forever.”
When Terence told me that story, he said it was the point in his trip when he really understood how two cultures could look at the same situation and have two absolutely different responses to it, both logical (depending on their own unique rules and values) and incomprehensible to the other.
And yet when I heard that story, part of me really identified with the Japanese understanding of feeling indebted. Because to some extent, I do the same thing.
Before I ask for help of a friend, I do a long, ritual dance in my head, weighing the appropriateness of the debt I’m going to owe them. Have I done any favors for them in the past? Will I seem needy or desperate? Will it burden them too much?
Often after such a dance, I choose not to ask.
I hate feeling indebted to people. I hate asking for help.
I hate that word: needy. I’m deathly afraid of it.
And the thing is, I’ll look on any request I might make of another human being as needy. Interviewing someone for the blog. Reaching out to ask if they want to join me in a collaborative project. Even, sometimes, inviting them to a dinner I’d love to cook for them.
Why, why do I consider so many things needy?
Being abroad has multiplied my chances to feel indebted. Indebted to the friends I’ve had for a long time, as they provide hospitality and advice, transport and simple companionship. Indebted to the new ones I’m so grateful for: for a recommendation to a doctor’s office, suggestions for activities, or an invitation to a birthday party. Indebted to the stranger in the street as they point me to a bus stop, a street address, a taxi stand.
Here’s what I’m trying to drill through my skull: this neediness I’m afraid of is simply being human. It is being vulnerable and real. It is acknowledging and accepting whole-heartedly the freely offered, gracious hospitality of others. It is expecting the best of the people around me.
This desire to not seem needy could be turned around: it’s a kind of desire to be in control, to always be above the help others could ask for. It is a weird kind of selfishness.
Look, I don’t want to be too hard on myself. I come from a culture that prizes independence, and pull-yourself-up-bootstrappiness. I think Americans are good at the generosity of giving, but the receiving of hospitality, of help, of seeing themselves as in need? That comes harder.
And I think we’re impoverished by it. Because this dance of giving and receiving is the very stuff of love.
This year, I’ve made more of a habit of asking for help. Of revealing a need.
And I’ve seen this: exposing my own lack creates a space to see just how amazing people are.
When I practice neediness now, I’m surprised by people’s generosity. I’m trying to do a better job of not being surprised anymore.
How have you received hospitality this week? How have you revealed your own neediness?