Upon receiving my first debit card 16 years ago when I started college, I promptly began to spend and spend big. With movie scenes depicting cards being declined at fancy restaurants in the back of my mind, I thought that once its balance reached zero, my card would stop letting me make purchases. I soon learned that wasn’t the case—I was able to overdraw my account—when my mother called and asked why I had spent $400 more than I had.
You can overdraw socially as well. When it comes to the generosity of others, I once believed that when people ran out of goodwill and sympathy they would stop giving. But, what I’ve seen to be true in too many cases, is that people continue to smile and give when they feel obligated to be generous while secretly feeling overdrawn. They give begrudgingly, to feel good about themselves, out of compulsion or while keeping record. I’ve seen this enough times that along the way it has turned me averse to others’ help.
I can remember nearly every exchange that brought me to this place. Among them, the roommate who said she was doing something nice for me, only later to angrily throw that list of things she’d done for me in my face. I replied I would have much rather had her do nothing than accept a single disingenuous offer of help that really made her feel put upon. Who knew that “not a problem” really meant “I’m running out of patience with you”? The person who brought out a list of money I’ve borrowed over the last 20 years and labeled me a liability. The person who helped me one month when I’d just returned from living in China at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis and the next month called me a freeloader and asked when I was going to stop living off of other people. One person’s “We’re blessed to be a blessing” came with strings attached. These were people I trusted. They were people who said they were happy to help. They were people who, even while saying that, felt burdened by me. To me, these were generous people; to them, I was a leech.
This chipped away at my faith in others’ generosity. I’ve written before of how I began to project these people’s way of giving on to the Lord and how it led me to turn away from him. I thought I was burdensome to him as well, that grace was too good to be true, that Jesus was a loan and that I needed to repay God because he couldn’t really have just given freely because no one does that.
I no longer think about God that way but my skepticism about people being good givers remains. I’d rather struggle on my own than be on the receiving end of a gift given from overdrawn forbearance. I’d sooner do without than risk being seen as too needy. I hear people say it’s not a burden, but I’ve heard people say that before.
As a result, I confess that when I give, I am not always motivated by the love of God. Instead, I am motivated by past hurt. I don’t specifically have in mind the command “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” but I am compelled by the desire to give in ways I haven’t been given to. Gifts, ironically, is my love language for giving but not for receiving.
It’s easy when you don’t really need anything or when you need very little, to forget that you don’t actually believe in others’ ability to give well and give long. But between unemployment, underemployment, and a fractured elbow, I’ve been unable to avoid asking for help.
It’s not just a desire to be self-sufficient as much as it is a desire to be loved and not do anything that jeopardizes that that makes me want to keep my needs close to the chest and figure out how to solve them on my own. Giving, in my experience, erodes love. I’m also kind of crazy obsessed with strength. Growing up, when my family went on road trips from Michigan to Virginia in the summers to visit my grandparents, I always wanted to see how long I could go without using the bathroom. Even if we stopped for other people to use it, I held out because I wanted to see how long I could last. I congratulated myself then on having the strongest bladder (though now is a different story–I’ll be in Depends by 40). When I injured my foot learning Punjabi dance while living in Boston, I danced on until that foot would not support a single pound and was on fire before going to the hospital.
My need to be strong also sometimes has to do with race. When I lived in China, I considered myself to be a representative of black people to the Chinese. I knew they didn’t know many, if any, black people personally and they might not meet another black person so I was happy to oblige when they needed a photo (like, genuinely happy, not saying that while feeling put upon). When I was in grad school I used to tell myself, ‘You need to be as close to the top of your cohort as you can but you definitely can’t be last because you’re the only black person in this program and you can’t in any way confirm what people may think about black people not being smart.’ If there had been another black person in my program, I would not have minded falling somewhere near the middle as long as the other person outperformed me because there would’ve still been another positive example of black people.
So in being among a group of people where I by default feel like I represent blacks there is an extra layer of humiliation when I am unable to do so well. To be unable to handle my own financial responsibilities and to have my hand out makes me feel not just like a failure in general but also in my striving to exemplify black excellence, an excellence which independently handles its own business. It’s possible that someone else is simply giving to a friend, but in my mind they are giving to a black woman who is unable to provide for herself.
The problem may just be in my head, I need to stop seeing myself these days as primarily a black woman who’s unable to provide for herself or needs extra emotional support even though the reality is that I am a black woman and I am unable to provide for myself and I do need extra emotional support of late. But maybe that’s not how other people see me. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and author of Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, discusses this widespread psychology among black women and the suffering that comes when we are unable to wrest ourselves—or rather be freed by allowing others to help—from its captivity. “In other words, to discover who they are, African-American women must be free not to be the StrongBlackWoman. They must be freed to reject the demands for unyielding strength, constant caregiving, and radical independence, and freed to embrace self-definition that is based upon authenticity, giving and receiving hospitality, and mutual interdependence. They must be freed to embody the imago Dei within, rather than circumscribing their lives based upon who their families, churches, and society demand that they must be.”
Then mixed in with all this—the past hurt, the pride, and the pressure I place on myself as a black woman—is this narrative of the bootstraps conservative I have grown up with that says they think that they have what they have because they worked hard and that they question, “Why should I have to help someone else who should be able to do for themselves? Why should my hard-earned money go to help people who haven’t worked as hard as me?” Even though I try not to, I presume this mindset exists in all conservatives. Whether true or not, I view the essence of political conservatism not in terms of a preference for smaller government but as this: “I want to keep what I earn. It is a burden to help my neighbor. Let them do for themselves.” So, a part of this is my own prejudice, in supposing that this is the true heart of every conservative. I’ve been especially convicted about this recently as some of the most generous people to me in my times of need have been conservative. I’m the one who can’t see past the stereotypes. My prejudice works double duty, both in assuming I’m being judged and then responding by making judgments about them. Lately, my thoughts turn often to verses that show that God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7) and that we ought not regard men like the world does (2 Corinthians 5:16). I’ve had to confront my failings in this area.
One might suppose I have difficulty sitting with my neediness before God, but that is not so—He is a perfect Giver and we are universally needy such that there is no appreciable difference between myself and my neighbor before him. I do not worry that my neediness may one day drive him away. You can never be too needy with God.
So, it’s hard for me to ask for help. I don’t know how long I’ll need it and don’t know the true capacity of those who offer it to do so in a self-forgetful, unburdened way. I don’t want to be seen as a freeloader. I wish to remain unattached to others’ strings and to avoid feelings of indebtedness whether they come from within or are imposed from without. I want to represent black people well.
I’m learning in this season, however, how to take more risks in this area, how to say yes more when help is offered and am realizing it takes strength to ask for it. I need to grow in trusting people who have given me no reason not to and accept that a part of that new freedom includes the possibility of being hurt again as there is only one perfect Giver. I need to retire the weakening and unsustainable strength of the StrongBlackWoman. I need to seek God for eyes that see myself and others as he does.
And I’m gonna need some help.