Wednesday, 8 July 2020

The Absolute Necessity of Asking for Help

I have been falling asleep by reading the reassuring and familiar plots of Georgette Heyer, fairy tales for grown-up ladies. What struck me last night was the reassuring set of rules her characters know they are to abide by. When in London, for example, an unmarried "Lady of Quality" must not go out for a walk unless accompanied by a friend, her maid, or a footman.

What frightened me very much in high school, university and at various points in my life was not knowing what the rules were, the "How Tos" that would get me from "my dreams" to their fruition. n the same way I thought that merely attending language classes would make me fluent in, say, Irish, I initially believed that success and happiness would just come along through mere attainment of university degrees, the ability to attract positive male attention, and the avoidance of mortal sin.

(These things, by the way, are indeed helpful--the last is crucial--but not enough in themselves.)

I can still remember my utter dismay, my aporia, to employ one of the few terms I remember from my philosophy classes, upon approaching graduation and not knowing what to do about getting a proper job. I wasn't just dismayed: I was frightened. Reading want-ads in the student job centre was something I could handle, but actually asking someone in the job centre to help me was simply beyond me.

Sometimes, when thinking about my adolescent self falling into yet another pit of despair, I impotently ask "Why did you not ask for help?"

The first person to ask me this, if I remember correctly, was our German friend Johannes the Good, who was astonished when I complained of a  non-German stranger in Frankfurt who insisted on making me the subject of his amorous intentions and would have followed me back to the residence in which I was staying had I not finally, heart fluttering like a bird in a net, succeeded in discouraging him.

"Who would have helped me?" I asked, as when this annoyance began I was in a bus station surrounded by various Germans all busily minding their own business.

"An older German lady," said Johannes firmly. "If you had asked her, she would have shouted at him."

And this, I realised, was absolutely true.

If I were to compose a list of advice for Young Women Today, I would put "Ask for help" somewhere near the top. If a Young Woman's response is "The last time I asked for help, I didn't receive help" or "The last time I asked for help, I got yelled at", I would respond "Ask a different person for help" or "Figure out whose job it is to help you, and ask them for help."

"Always look for the helpers," as Mr Rogers famously said albeit in a different context--or is it?

Sometimes I feel modern life is a dark and scary cave and one must feel one's way along the walls to keep from falling into an even darker and scarier tunnel. I don't have a map; all I have are Regency romance novels, and they are really no help. In fact, they can make life worse for they underline, again and again, that women-of-honour are inescapably financially dependent on their families, especially their male relations or husband. This is simply not true.  It has not been true for a long time.

They suggest--indeed most books written before 1950 suggest--that women who have to work for their living are terribly unfortunate and usually socially inferior to women who don't. Work, in books, also makes you terribly vulnerable. Every time a runaway ingenue in a Georgette Heyer novel suggests becoming a governess or a chambermaid, her confidante is so firmly against the idea, that it is clear to the fully-adult reader that this is because governesses and chambermaids were routinely victims of sexual violence.

By the time I graduated from university, I wished I hadn't read so many novels that expressed such a horror of work, especially women working. The conservative circles in which I moved were similarly lukewarm about women's employment outside the home. I was also primed by such books as Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman's Guide to Surviving the Academic World to expect unrelenting horror in pursuing my career dreams.

But now I am writing myself into a depression, so I will go back to my initial point which is that in an age in which we are no longer have a clear blueprint of how to get on in life, it behooves us all to find out whose job it is to provide help and advice and to ask for help and advice.

If you have children, I suspect it is a very good idea never to dissuade them from asking you for help and advice. Presumably if you tell children who ask you for help that you're too busy or  that they should be able to do whatever it is on their own, they will get the idea that asking for help is useless or bad. And that would be too bad.


  1. Alas, I think society is in such condition that when you ask the people whose job it is to help, you find out that THEY actually never figured things out, and are rather putting on an elaborate pretence with nothing to back it up.
    It's still a good idea (indispensable!) to ask for help, but you have to be so frightfully discerning of whose opinion is worth having. Lots of supposedly knowledgeable and trustworthy people will give advice that will do a great deal more harm than good.
    Sorry to be depressing....

    1. On second thought, my gloomy comment is based on the idea of asking for about Life's Big Questions.
      I guess it really doesn't apply to asking for help in getting rid of unwanted followers or understanding chemistry ;-)

    2. Ha ha! Well, I think some of my advice has passed and will continue to pass the test of time. How to cope in a dating world where gazillions of young men have been addicted to internet porn from age 11 may be beyond my knowledge to grasp. You can't all marry men born before 1989.

    3. Indeed yes! The old Seraphic Singles blog was one of the most helpful things I ever ran across in my 20s--I am sincerely grateful for your good advice there.

    4. Thank you! I'm so pleased it helped people.