Self-Sufficiency Is Overrated

One week this summer, my partner, my children and I borrowed a friend’s house near my parents’ and sister’s places in New Jersey. Before we arrived, my friend asked me what she could leave for us in the house. Milk? Eggs? Fruit? Coffee? I brushed off her offers. Really, I said, we don’t need anything. It’s kind of you just to lend us the space.

Stop saying no, she insisted. Just tell me what you need.

Her entreaties loosened something in me that I’d been holding too tightly, for more than 18 months. “I’m fine,” I have told myself since the pandemic began. I have my groceries delivered. I have my walking route. I sent myself some new walking shoes. (I’ve sent myself far too many things.) I have work.

But my friend’s generosity made me realize that I do want for something. I want someone else to take care of me. Articulating this felt dangerous, vulnerable. Generally, I want to not want.

Covid isolation — from which we are gingerly emerging but have not quite escaped — has shown us the limits of our cherished self-sufficiency. Alone, disconnected from one another, we are not actually fine. Our kids, as they snack and snap at us, aren’t fine. Our parents certainly aren’t fine. A recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 50 percent of households reported someone experiencing “serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or serious problems sleeping in the past few months.”

For those of us with added stress, the isolation of the pandemic has left us not only weary but also frayed. My 12-year-old daughter emerged from chemotherapy for cancer just this summer. During her now nearly two years of active treatment, weekly hospital visits and procedures, my partner and I began to feel our life experience had simply diverged from everyone else’s. Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to care for ourselves, or how to ask for more support, especially knowing everyone was stretched too thin.

Then my mother lost her words. She seemed to fade over the Fourth of July holiday, falling asleep on couches, drifting away from conversations. By the following Tuesday, when I called, she kept repeating one phrase: “I’ll pass the phone to. I’ll pass the phone to. I’ll pass the phone.”

That evening, she was admitted to the hospital. The next day I set out from Washington, where I live, obsessing over the questions I hadn’t asked her — about her childhood, her parents and her life in Manhattan before I was born. Though we talk almost daily by phone, I hadn’t seen her much at all in this distant year.

For four days, my sister, my father and I took shifts sitting next to my mother. With us, around the clock, were hospital-appointed “sitters” — a rotating cast of remarkably calm women assigned to help. Vaccinated friends asked if they might pitch in. At first, we said no. But then we realized, we did not need to fake self-sufficiency anymore.

On Wednesday and Thursday my mother still could recall only part of the alphabet. Suddenly, on Saturday, she woke up and asked for a bagel and lox. The delirium had come from a drug interaction; it was subsiding.

My mother’s larger support system had kicked in by then. One of her closest friends from childhood had arrived to relieve us, and another was clamoring to swap in. We were glad. I was exhausted.

Becoming open again to the generosity of others offers a fresh way to see the world. Small kindnesses from friends and strangers suddenly feel outsize in their humanity. A man at the rental car agency chatting amiably with me makes me swell with good will, as does the gas station attendant who makes sure I buy exactly the right amount of fuel for when I return the car.

I want to hold onto this feeling of appreciation for a beat longer, to recognize how much more human I feel when I accept the plant seller’s offer to drop off the succulent I purchased at no extra charge, or when a friend shows up with an unexpectedly well-considered basket of vodka, chocolate and almonds.

And then there are the enormous kindnesses — the actress who donated her time to teach my daughter acting by video; another old friend who offered to lend us her house in Maine, and then insisted on taking us to her favorite beaches, a precious gift of space and beauty after a year locked away. The childhood friend who patiently stood in the ocean for an hour, putting my kids on a surfboard again and again.

There’s a reason most of us, normally, don’t live cut off from other people. We need others to support us in so many ways — for the teaching of our children, the growing of our food, the caring for our vulnerable. In my family that’s more profoundly evident than in others.

But it is clear that no one feels quite right these days. I ran into a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in a decade on the street; we both described a vague feeling of unease that we can’t seem to shake.

Maybe it would help to relinquish our hard-protected, false sense of self-sufficiency. I’m trying, in these vaccinated, brisk-but-not-terribly-cold days, to gratefully accept offerings from friends, family and strangers: a home-cooked dinner served outside, a house by the sea, a few minutes of unexpected conversation. I feel buoyed by a friend who unabashedly texts “I love you” every now and then, apropos of nothing.

When we arrived at my friends’ house this summer, I found that they had left me peaches and clementines, coffee, milk and eggs, along with a note expressing how happy they were that we were staying. It felt like an embrace.

Accepting my limitations and allowing myself to once again feel gratitude for the presence and generosity of others has reminded me that I can stretch, too. I’m also capable of sending a text saying “I love you,” or “I miss you,” of extending a hand or, after far too long, a hug. I can finally add space at my table. It’s a joy to feel replenished enough to give again.

Sarah Wildman is a staff editor and writer in Opinion. She is the author of “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.”

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