This is a re-post that was originally posted in January 2017. Enjoy!
Once upon a time I was given the gift of seeing a real-life support system in action. I was invited, as one of a few non-Old Order Mennonite women, to attend a quilting bee. The room was very quiet as 16 women sat around a large quilt frame—each of us focused on the task at hand.
Breaking the silence, one of the women stated that a young woman in their community had recently given birth. Another commented that the baby was unwell. Over the next 20 minutes, these women quietly put a circle of care in place around this family. Meal drop-offs were planned, house support was organized, child-care for the baby’s siblings was put into place, and daily check-ins were arranged. These women activated a support system for this family as naturally and easily as they made the small stitches they were adding to the quilt.
I’ve thought about this experience often over the years as I’ve watched others struggle when there has not been a support system in place. Independence is seen as such a positive attribute in our culture, but at what cost? When we strive to do everything ourselves, we not only run the risk of being overwhelmed in times of need, but deprive ourselves of the joy that comes from supporting others and building community.
We may not live in an organized community, such as the Old Order Mennonites, but we do have relationships.
Levels of Relationship
While no two relationships are identical; I believe that they can be divided into the following four levels:
Level One relationships are those we share with casual acquaintances—a clerk in a store, our bank teller, the barista at the coffee shop on the corner. The topics of conversation tend to be about light, surface topics such as ‘the weather’.
Level Two relationships are the ones that go deeper than those in Level One, with people we see more frequently. One example may be with a co-worker—we would tell them that we’re going on vacation and give basic details—when, where, who with—but little else.
When we spend time with our friends, we are engaging in Level Three relationships. Confidences are shared, we may see them often, and there is a comfort and familiarity. To continue the vacation example—we would tell them why we’re going, what our dreams are for the trip, and send them personal updates during the adventure.
Level Four relationships are the ones that are rare. The people who are at this level, are those that we can phone at any time of the day or night because we need them—either for help or to share good news. We know that they have our backs and will always be there for us. This is usually a reciprocal relationship.
Building a Support System
Building a support system requires a willingness to look up from our lives and notice those around us. It requires the courage to be vulnerable and ask for help when we need it. It requires the willingness to share our time and resources. Being able to trade independence for interdependence—to not only give, but also to ask for help is crucial.
All levels of relationships are needed in a support system. Simply listening to the elderly person standing in line with you at the grocery store as he talks about his grandchildren, is a way of being part of a support system. You’ve never met him before and you may be the only person he talks to all day. Noticing that your co-worker is looking tired and asking what’s going on is being part of a support system. Telling your friends that you’re feeling overwhelmed and asking for help is being part of a support system.
As we take the time to do this, our relationships deepen (go from Levels 1 to 3 or 4), our community widens and our support system grows. You can think of support systems as a group of concentric, interlocking circles.
Start Where You Are
Early on, when I work with clients as they cope with challenges, I ask them about their support systems. Many will respond that they don’t have one. For some, as we tease out their relationships, they are amazed that they have more supports than they thought—especially if they are willing to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. For others, I’ve become their first support as we work on finding others that they can call on.
There are a multitude of groups (specific to various challenges) as well as crisis lines that can provide help and ongoing support when necessary. A list of some helpful numbers is included in the resources section of this website.
Learning to ask for and give help is like building muscle. The more we at it, the easier the process becomes. Below is a TED Talk by Amanda Palmer who developed her ‘asking’ muscle in a very interesting way. Enjoy!