This weekend I watched on amusingly on the train as a mother walked onto the train with her four children. All the seats were taken so they stood in the space in between the seats. Three of the kids stood in front of me and I observed their conversation as the train was starting to move. Two of three children were holding onto the handrails tight bracing for the train’s movement. However the youngest child – he couldn’t have been older than six- was adamant he didn’t need the handrail to support him; despite constant nagging from his older siblings. As the train moved along steadily, I continued to watch as he beamed proudly, strategically using his body weight to stand handrail free- despite the unnecessary effort he needed to do so.
Watching this innocent scenario unfold helped a lot of thoughts I have recently been having fall in place. Why – like the little boy perhaps – are we sometimes so adamant to ask for help or accept help when it’s readily offered to us?
I think generally we can be quite proud and stubborn – often thinking we can weather hard times alone. So we suffer in silence, often isolating ourselves from others ironically when we need them most. We also tend to think to ask for help says something negative about who we are; we’re weak, naive, not independent or self-sufficient. But truthfully, it says none of those things. It speaks volumes about the situation, not you. You’re going through a rough time. It’s a tough situation and you can only withstand so much alone; seeking or wanting help is understandable, if not expected.
The Stylist published a collection of issues last year looking back over their work covering the last decade. They published 10 issues featured many of the women that had graced their covers over that time – one of them being Reni Eddo-Lodge (journalist and author most well known for her book ‘Why I’m No Longer talking to White People About Race’.) When reflecting on takeaways from the last decade she said something quite striking to me. She stated, ‘there’s no self-care without community care’; in other words caring for each other is key to our own wellbeing. But more interestingly so she quotes a t-shirt slogan that says ‘Be less capable. You never know who might help you.’
I think her self-care point speaks for itself but her second point on vulnerability is worth reflecting on as I finish this post. The pretence of capability is not always needed; sometimes it’s worth being fearlessly vulnerable. Vulnerable without the worry of judgement, hurt or mockery. If ‘community care’ is to truly happen we need to make sure this does first.
A few months ago I was standing on my doorstep one night rooting through my bag for my keys in order to open the door. As I looked up, I saw (what I assume to be) a white stray cat strolling across the street. I remember weirdly standing for a minute to admire it; stray cats I see are not usually white so it was a rare sight. It’s white stood out beautifully against the darkness of the London night.
Like that cat maybe we should start wearing what makes us different more proudly on our sleeves. I say this as someone who recently feels like they’ve been in a lot of spaces where they’ve felt so…different and out of place. Sometimes it was because I was black, sometimes it was because of my faith, other times it was simply because I felt like an introvert surrounded by larger-than-life extroverts. At times like that, it can be tempting to either shrink back to try to survive the situation by suppressing your difference so you can camouflage into your environment.
It’s definitely true that differences can be isolating. But differences can be empowering once fully owned and the beauty of them is fully understood. Admittedly, it is a learning process- and not an easy one; one that Is part of the wider journey of learning about and loving yourself. Don’t be someone who holds their differences tightly to their chest scared they might be noticed or zoomed in on. Instead, if like me, you often find yourself feeling such a way in certain social environments I want to challenge you to be a bold different from now on.
I’ve always been fascinated with this idea of everyone hiding a secret pain and suffering. That perhaps the strong person welding a smile or air of politeness there’s pain lingering inside. I remember when I was in primary school and in music class we learned The Beatles’ song ‘Eleanor Rigby’. In the song is the line:
‘Eleanor Rigby…waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door,
who is it for?’
I remember my young mind literally imagining a lady carefully taking a pale mask out of a jar each day and applying it to her face as she steps out of her door and into the world. But of course, nowadays- now that I am older I see it differently. Each of us wears a mask out of necessity because let’s be honest; I’m sure there have been many times where someone has asked ‘how are you?‘ and you’ve wanted to say ‘not great’ but held back. For me, that happens way too often but I’m sure its a common occurrence for many. But every time we grin and nod that’s our mask playing its role and coming into use. In fact, we probably do way more than we know, and sometimes without ourselves noticing.
I try to keep this in mind when approaching people, it’s always good to be aware that a smile hides 1000 things. It makes you navigate conversation carefully with people and more open to people maybe saying a simple ‘no’ when asked ‘Are you okay?’