Self-reliance Is Overrated
By Mary Young, D.B.A.
I was in my mid-30s when I broke my leg in a hiking accident. For more than a month, I hobbled around in a cast and crutches, determined to continue living much as I had before: running errands, meeting friends for coffee, returning to my job at UMass, even traveling from building to building for meetings or a class. These daily exertions were exhausting. But they also had a second, far more profound, effect.
One night as I was turning in, I noticed that I was feeling unusually happy. Oddly enough, I had felt the same way the night before. In fact, I’d been aglow with warm feelings every night in recent memory.
What was going on?
Reflecting back on that day, I remembered the person who had stood to give me a seat on the Five College bus. I had no choice but to accept it, gratefully. When I reached Whitmore Hall’s front door, someone else had held the front door for me and then pushed the call button for the elevator. A co-worker had brought me a sandwich from the snack bar. And later that day, a friend had taken me to Stop-n-Shop and then carried the bags into my kitchen.
I felt overflowing gratitude towards these friends and strangers. Accepting their help wasn’t something I was used to. A stalwart New Englander, I had been raised to value independence and self-reliance. My culture told me that if I were carrying a stack of heavy boxes up the stairs and an empty-handed person offered help, the right answer was, “No thanks! I’ve got it!”
It was precisely because I hadn’t said, “No thanks. I’ve got it!” that day that I found myself feeling taken care of and at one with the world. I also felt more connected to it― feelings I never got from self-reliance. In fact, I gradually realized, independence and self-sufficiency can actually be quite isolating. We’re robbed of good feelings like gratitude and connectedness that bubble-up when we accept help. We also deny others the good feelings that they, too, might experience if we’d said yes.
That epiphany is even more important to remember now that I’m in my 70s and “aging solo”—that is, without a spouse, partner, or children I can call upon for help. I’m proud to be (fairly) self-sufficient these days, but that can’t last forever. Sooner or later I will need more help from family, friends, neighbors, community and a variety of professionals, for small things like a strong arm to steady me on an icy sidewalk and bigger things like deciding whether to continue living independently or ask for regular assistance.
To age well, you need the grace to adapt to your declining abilities, and the wisdom to know that accepting help can be enriching to both the recipient and the giver. You may even find yourself feeling inexplicably happy as you slip into bed at night, reflecting back on your day.
Mary Young, D.B.A. is Research Director for Davis Financial Group.