Saturday, December 3, 2016

There's No Such Thing as "Self-Help"


I moved to a new neighborhood in September, across from the middle school football field and on a street filled with modest ranchers built in the 70s.  I didn’t know anyone and I live alone.  The first Saturday I was there I heard really loud singing coming from across my backyard fence -  old school stuff, some guy mowing his lawn and crooning Motown.  Cautiously (crazy person?) I walked over there and saw a smiling guy with headphones, belting it out like it was his job, which it clearly was not.  He saw me, pulled off his earbuds and a huge grin lit up his face.
            Turns out Chris and his wife Paula came to Colorado from New Orleans after Katrina, where they had lost everything.  If you know anything about New Orleans, you know they love their dang music.  Chris and Paula just love to sing and dance.  He gave me his phone number, told me to call whenever I needed something.  Chris works for UPS and Paula is in retail.  They are good people.  So when I had a big package to ship I texted Chris about the nearest UPS store and before I could breathe he was rolling up in the big brown truck.
         “Yo Miss Phyllis!” he whistled as he hopped out in his little brown pants, “I’ll take your package.  Give it here.”
            You know how it is when you move to a new place.  I didn’t know where anything was and spent a lot of time GPS-ing the simplest things.  So grateful for his generous spirit, I happily handed him the package.
            “Listen Miss Phyllis,” he said gravely but beaming, “You got people.”
          His neighbor love stopped me in my tracks. Brand new to this town, pretty solitary, and finding my way those three words were a balm to my soul: You are not alone. We are all in this together. 
            I got people.
          We can’t do anything alone.  When I wake up on a Colorado morning and I hear the heater humming away, I know people have made that happen, along with the lights, the food in my pantry, and the car in my driveway.  Where would I be without everybody else?  Cold, in the dark, hungry and walking everywhere.  Nothing works or happens without all our people.
            A few years ago after a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer, I woke up to see my three brothers standing around the bed.
            “Hey Phyl,” my adorable brother Dom said, “Did you have the surgery or not?  Hard to tell.”
            They are my people, along with my two sisters, three sons, their amazing wives and kids. My bio-tribe is loud, loving, and fiercely devoted to each other and the rest of my tribe, though unrelated by blood are bound to me by big fat Philly love. Through cancer, I learned that we never heal alone.  I mean, my struggles with the loss of body parts was internal and had to be processed through my own singular filter but I healed in community, as we all do.  Group healing works.  Ask any social worker, therapist, AA member, or tribe of any kind.  There’s no such thing as “self-help.”  It’s “us-help” all the way. I mean, sure, you have to suffer through some things alone but shared pain lessens the anguish every dang time.
            As a young woman I feared dependency (just like old people do) and was strident, self-reliant, and basically disdainful of those who needed help.  As my college buddy therapist lovingly pointed out, I wasn’t “independent” I was “counter-dependent.”  If it looked or smelled like “needy” I was kickboxing my way out of it – whatever “it” was: a relationship, a task, a feeling, or a thought.  In my terror to avoid looking weak I became sort of a crazed female lone wolf.  As I get older I yield to the logic of community.
            This is pretty poignant at a time when our whole country and certainly our society seems sick.  We haven’t listened closely enough to each other and as a result our politics have gone catawampus.   It makes me sad to see more divisiveness come out of this:  fighting and recall efforts, and more partisan bullshit.  We are in this pickle because everyone built their little silo of need or belief and that was that.  Like a dear friend of mine said, “I lived in a progressive bubble.  I had no idea so many people were suffering.”
            Time to burst all bubbles, tear down all silos, and flush assumptions, beliefs, and fears down the loo.  We all want to be happy, healthy and free. The only way out is through, helping each other out of this morass by really listening without judgment and condemnation.  When tragedy strikes a family, community, or country all barriers dissipate and it’s just human hearts helping.  United we stand; divided we have already fallen.
            So now when I roam a bookstore (what’s left of them) and I see someone ardently paging through a book in the Self Help section I want to go up to her (it’s usually a her), put my arm on her shoulder and say Come one, honey.  We’re all in this together.  I want to tell her there are no experts or gurus or “teachers,” there’s only us together, muddling through, sharing stories of what works and what doesn’t, holding on to each other after a bad diagnosis or another failed relationship. Put the book down, honey, and give me a hug.
            You got people.