By Karen Spiak
I have always been an independent person. An “I can do it myself, I don’t need any help” kind of person.
These traits were honed in my childhood for a variety of reasons and served me well into adulthood. They greatly benefited me in my career which spanned decades in the high pressure design industry. They also gave me the freedom to live the single life in Manhattan, then to pack up my family of one and move clear across the country to Seattle for a job in the tech industry. I have been living now in Thailand for the past five years, an act that once again, I performed solo.
Modern society applauds this particular type of personality, especially among women. As we continue to show our strong selves, we are rewarded with promotions and respect from our male colleagues and our friends. However, as the years have gone by, I’ve noticed cracks forming in my fiercely independent armor. When I’ve had bad times and needed support to move forward, friends and family would comment, “You are brave, you’ll be fine.” or “You always land on your feet.” It was as if my inherent strength had become a double edged sword, I felt a bit invisible. The truth was, I did not know how to ask for help nor accept it if it was given. Even if I desperately needed it, it made me feel weak and worthless to admit I could not do something by myself. I had become expert in hiding my vulnerability.
It is often, at a point such as this, when life steps in and gives you the lessons you need. My lessons came in the form of a foot surgery. I had broken my right foot over 10 years ago and it never healed properly. It became misshapen and required surgery to re-break it and pin it straight. I left my job in the New Life kitchen for the surgery and returned a week later in a cast and on crutches. This would be my physical state for the next 8 weeks.
I was full of multiple fears that revolved around self-worth, loss of independence and not being able to race around at my usual frenetic pace. I was also completely terrified to have to ask for help. In my current state, I could not even negotiate any help given because there was so little I could give in return. I felt vulnerable, vastly uncomfortable, and scared. Deep down, I was also terrified of going through the recovery by myself.
The Strength of Community
My first morning back, I was greeted by cards, flowers, cookies and community members at my door. It is hard to describe the relief and joy I felt as I realized that in these gifts, I was not alone. My friends brought me meals and checked in on me, staying to chat or tidy up my room. As I hobbled around, everyone jumped in to help set up a chair for me in the daily morning meetings, clear the walkways of shoes or debris, and constantly asked if there was anything I needed. I could not say no, I needed help with almost everything.
When we are healthy we tend to take a lot for granted. When we become unable to serve our own meals, do laundry or go to a store, having someone offer to do these tasks becomes a precious gift. I began to receive so many gifts I could never repay. I began also to notice that an offering of help was often accompanied by a sense of joy. As I profusely thanked someone for their gift I noticed their face emanating a glow of happiness. Helping me actually seemed to help them! I realized that it is human nature to want to help others and in doing so, everyone benefits. My walls started to come down and in their space, my vulnerable side was allowed to emerge. This had always been a stranger side of myself, one I did not want to know. This stranger turned out to be soft and gentle, not stupid and weak as I had feared. It also had a quiet strength of it’s own! This was a profound revelation; accepting and allowing myself to be vulnerable actually opened the door to support that I needed.
The Power of Vulnerability
I write this post now with my foot almost healed. I walked to my office today unaided, on my own two feet. I feel different though, the last two months have transformed me. A buried part of me now has a voice, and what’s more, I LIKE this part of me. It has qualities that were missing in my personality, important tools that I can see now I need to be happy. When something bad happens to us we often feel sorry for ourselves, “Why me?”. I remember feeling that way when I broke my foot 10 years ago. But life has it’s reasons for everything it seems. Give something time and the answers will come. Now, I am immensely grateful for my broken foot. Without it I would never have been given the lessons the surgery and recovery have provided. And all the wonderful gifts I have received.