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October 29, 2013
The art of accepting, or rejecting, help
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

One of the remarkable contributions that Soren Kierkegaard has made to philosophy is his analysis of despair, “The Sickness Unto Death.”

The great Danish thinker has diagnosed a spiritual and psychological disease affecting innumerable modern men; a disease of such gravity that only God’s grace can heal it. Clearly, he is making a subtle reference to Lazarus’ sickness – which was not “unto death” (John: 11-4) – and warns us that spiritual and psychological sicknesses are much graver than physical ones.

Indeed, we should “revertere ad Dominum” (return to the Lord) – in whom alone salvation is to be found. 

In the book just referred to, Kierkegaard sketches the case of a man whose despair takes the diabolical form of revolt. His “sickness unto death” is that, while despairing and yet knowing that (divine) help is available, he turns it down with hatred. He won’t accept help. He writes, “And as for asking help from any other - no, that he will not do for all the world; rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself - with all the tortures of hell, if so it must be.” (p. 205)

To refuse desperately needed help when available and offered is one of the most pathetic manifestations of pride – the capital sin par excellence, being the one of Lucifer: “non serviam.”

Refusing help in all its various forms could be the topic of a book. In the modest frame work of this article, I shall limit myself to some prominent cases.

To place the problem in proper perspective, we should realize that a needy person is in a position of “inferiority” and “weakness.” He cannot “do it on his own” and faces the following alternative: either to beg for help, or to face possible disaster. Irrational as it sounds, there are people who would  prefer starving to death rather than humbly turn to others.

The pagan form of this tragic attitude was powerfully formulated by Stoic philosophers: they proudly assert that they do not and cannot possibly need help. They have above such contingencies, nothing can shake them, nothing can move them, nothing can defeat them. They are “above” all these signs of weakness.

There are also more subtle cases of refusing help.

Even though the people I will refer to might be exceptions, I have met some in the course of my long life. I am referring to home bound people who actually resent the offer given by “outsiders,” while imposing crushing burdens on their own family. They do not want a kind neighbor to do their shopping, or bring them pre-cooked food. Their craving for self sufficiency is such that they prefer to suffer hardships than ask for help or say thank you. The very word chokes in their throat. 

Refusing help on principle, far from being a form of “refined charity” (“I do not want to be a burden for others”), is nothing but ugly pride. To say “thank you” (to acknowledge that one is “indebted”) exasperates them to such an extent that this very thought gives them a bitter taste in their mouth.

Human beings can also have a double motivation. First (this is usually in the forefront of their consciousness) they truly do not want to be a burden to others: they fear to inconvenience friends and neighbors, but simultaneously – at the back of their consciousness – these same persons are “allergic” to being indebted. “If someone helps me, it places me in his debt,” and most people hate to be “debtors.” It makes them feel “uncomfortable.” It “scratches” their self image of being someone noble and generous who can hold his head high.

Indeed, we like to play a “noble” role on the human theater. Winning is enjoyable; defeat is not.

There are also those who do accept help, and even manage to say “thank you,” but while doing so, they are planning how they can best “revenge themselves” by  giving the helper a magnificent gift, totally out of proportion with the help given. Then the roles are reversed; the giver becomes the debtor. Such subtleties are worth mentioning, because they reveal the complexity of the human psyche.   

There are also those who flatly refuse help from friends even though the latter would be happy to do so, but they look for paid help. In such cases, the “help” being remunerated does not deserve a thank you.  It is a business deal.
To refuse to ask help from close friends, or share one’s problems with them, has been admirably castigated by a Frenchman of the 16th century, Jean de Rotrou. He writes:

“L’ami qui souffre seul fait une injure a l’autre,” or “The friend who suffers alone offends the other.”

It belongs to the very essence of love and friendship that the lover or the friend wants to share either the joys or the sorrows of his friend. “Your joys are my joys; your crosses are my crosses” is an arch word of true love.

I recall reading an article by a well known writer who, for a while, had caught “the feminist virus.” She relates that once traveling by train a gentleman offered to take down her suitcase. She promptly replied, “I do not need your help; I am as strong as you are.”

Years later while witnessing the heroism of firemen on 9/11, and having in the mean time been “purged” of the sickness alluded to (for it is one), she deplored her attitude. How grateful a woman should be when a man holds the door for her or carries her suitcase and proves that he is conscious of the noble mission given to the male sex to help and to protect those who are weaker.

Asking for help

This is another Christian “art” that few know how to master. We all know people who, feeling themselves very important, do not hesitate to ask for help, but their way of doing it is in fact a subtle command. “Of course, I assume that you would be happy to do me a small favor.”

This attitude is far removed from Christian humility and eliminates ab ovo the sweet burden of gratitude.

There are also those who do ask for help, but do so in such a cunning fashion that one is reminded that previously they have been the beneficiaries of your help and generosity. In other words, their helping you should be experienced as the paying back of a long overdue debt.

There are also people who are willing to help you when asked but who subtly (or not so subtly), make you understand that you should realize that the help given is a “one time deal.” Another request would not only be unwelcome, but will be rejected.  “Please, do not ring my bell again”. Such people can make it difficult to say a very warm “thank you.”

Christianity – this great teacher of how to love – also tells us the proper response we should give when one’s humble request is turned down. Far from being irritated and angry, murmuring to ourselves,  “That was no big deal for them; they have nothing to do anyway; they are rich, etc.” we will accept the rejection and  make a point of recalling past situations when they too have flatly refused to play the Good Samaritan. Moreover, they will say a loving prayer for their “brother” whose heart has not yet been melted by Christ’s love.

Some have a valid excuse for turning down a request, but one cannot help but feel that they were grateful for having found one. They could then sincerely say:  “I would have loved to but…” In fact one feels that they thank their “good luck” for having escaped from an unpleasant task.

Among the very many gems of Christian wisdom that St. Francis of Sales has left us, one deserves our special attention: the “art” of saying “no.” He who is deep “in the red” has no choice but to say “no” when someone asks him for financial help. In such cases, the gentle saint just referred to gives us a golden advice. The refusal should be done so lovingly that even though help is not and cannot be given, the love in which it is expressed in the refusal is itself a gift. The “music” of the “no” is so sweet that it will inevitably warm one‘s heart. “How I wish I could help you; alas, I cannot do it this time, but you should feel that I deeply regret it. I hope that next time you are in need, you will give me the joy of turning to me again.”

A “loving no” is such a sweet gift that it richly compensates for the fact that one “is still left in the cold.”  On the other hand, a “sour yes” pours vinegar on the request granted.

Editor's note: This is the first half of Dr. von Hildebrand's reflection on charity. To read the second half, please click here.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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