Help. It’s a short word. Our bodies have told us how to cry, to scream for it since we were born. Someone help me. I see it clenched in the fists of a tantruming child, in the elderly person needing contact, in a refugee families I’ve met here in Switzerland. I see the look on the vacant eyes of the homeless in Connecticut and California and in news stories of victims of terror and hurricanes and floods and another mass shooting. I see this look, and I try not to look away. In fact, sometimes I search for the look. I want wisdom. I want to listen. I want to help.
A pastor once asked “Do you want to help people because you want everyone to like you, Amy?” He was a man who spent much time concerning himself with reasons we should not over-help the poor, the marginalized or the elderly. He was about building the church, and endorsed the idea that helping often hurts people who are suffering. I got the theory, since during that time I was in need of help myself. His question pressed on something sore in my gut. I needed people to help me. I needed to find people who needed my help too— yet from my perspective, the community where I lived didn’t have an issue with over-helping, over-loving anyone.
As I’ve thought more, I’ve decided that the pastor was partially right. I seek out people who need help— because they do make me feel better. People who admit to needing help at times make me feel less alone. I’m one of them. My child has been one of them. My family has held many of them. We are all one of them.
I’m the mom whose baby cried hard and was slightly off-color when he was born. No one believed he had a problem besides a bit of jaundice. Weeks after his birth, we discovered at a routine exam that he needed a complex open heart surgery to reconstruct the veins running to his heart.
I’m the mom who misinterpreted my baby’s needs the second time he cried for help. Maybe he has colic, I thought, recalling how the cardiologist assured me that he should be fine now. “Act like a normal mom.” But my infant’s heart was spinning at 240 beats per minute putting him at risk for stroke. He had an atrial flutter and required additional weeks in the hospital and a year of toxic meds.
And later, I became the mom who couldn’t find help, couldn’t help her child who developed more difficulties. He tantrumed and cried, he sprinted and threw things. He cleared walls and shelves. He pushed through his siblings, peers, his schools for years. Every growing inch of him screamed help. I could barely help myself through critical relatives, expensive doctors, schools and therapists. I couldn’t sleep for years, couldn’t socialize, couldn’t leave the house many days.
I’m the mom who attended church and school and lived in two affluent communities in top American school districts while daily demands and expectations of community depressed and excluded and shrank my child into a corner where he didn’t want to cry out anymore, didn’t want to live. They drugged him and diagnosed him and tried to send him away; and I’m a mom who watched her family tighten into a little rock of five loving people who finally crashed around enough to find help (with special therapists, teachers, and a handful of friends.) I’m the mom judged by pastors and parents and relatives and readers. I’m a mom who left her country in search of a different way of living— somewhere else.
“Stop being a victim,” someone says. I’m the mom who started writing about hard stuff, started sponsorships for homeless families, support groups for special needs moms, writing workshops for moms unheard. I’m the mom who homeschooled my kid when I had to, who let people and pastors and relatives go when they hurt me. I’m the mom who shouts BE A VICTIM even if only for a short time. Be a victim so that you can become humble, empathetic, can feel in your despondent bones why hands need to open, how victims become survivors. Be honest for a while about suffering. It feels rotten. And it’s only when you trail your body over the revolting aspects of humanity that you can rise up from it.
It’s victims who dare to write, speak, weep in public so that the rest of us might finally understand. It’s victims of exclusion, misogamy, racism, abuse, warfare who help us learn how to become human again. It’s victims who show us how to rebel, to grow kinder, to help the people we’ve overlooked.
The medical community at one time speculated that my son may be on the spectrum, could have PTSD from the surgery and hospitalizations, that he has severe ADHD and depression. But as he’s grown into the joyful, hilarious, kind (yet still struggling) 12-year-old boy—a boy attending a school full of children from around the world, from all walks of faith, in Switzerland— I’ve learned a simple trick for “helping” almost anyone in need...
Listen for the real story, for what you don’t know, for the culture or class shoved down, the diagnosis all wrong, the cry for help. There you’ll find wisdom.
Listen for the mistakes of a broken system, of people who need us to stop conforming, who need us to operate from the soul. There you’ll find new ideas.
Listen to the way a person cries out, admits to truth and rises— simply because you’ve listened. There you’ll find love, respect, friendship.
Listen for the voice beyond a category in a classroom, a national border, political party or a religious title. Listen to time ticking beyond your convenient schedule, for the chance you’re given constantly to move past your little world, your safe job, your circle of friends. There you’ll find grace.
And when you listen, you’ll find yourself sitting beside the one who needs you. You won’t be above— you’ll be together. You’ll hear stories you could never have dreamt— stories that force a responding echo of affirmation from you. Yes you.