When I was in my mid-20s I spent some time living in Spain. Before I arrived I had signed up to take some language courses at a school in Madrid to improve my Spanish, which I hadn’t studied since my sophomore year of college. I remember one day, around lunchtime, I was walking up and down one of the main streets of the city. I was very hungry and there were plenty of casual little diners on the street, but I was hesitant to go in to any of them. My reluctance wasn’t because I was on a tight budget, but because I was very self-conscious about my limited language abilities. My Spanish was bad. For about 40 minutes I paced up and down the street, getting hungrier and hungrier. Finally, my hunger got the best of my pride, so I entered one of the “cafeterias” and sat at the counter. The waiter handed me a menu and as I fumbled with my dictionary to figure out what was on offer, the man smiled and explained the menu of the day, speaking very slowly so that I could understand. He took my order, which I managed to give (it wasn’t pretty), and at the end of the meal he presented me with a big piece of flan, on the house.
I’ll never forget that experience. It taught me that we must never be afraid to ask for help when we need it. Even Our Lord tells us we should share our needs with Him in our prayers: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). But it is not easy to ask for help, especially if we’re used to being able to take care of ourselves. That’s one of the great trials of getting older, when your mind tells you that you’re able and your body begs to differ. But we are all dependent on others to a certain degree, and it is an important exercise in humility to let people take care of us when we need it. It also creates opportunities for our neighbors to perform corporal works of mercy – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are imprisoned (these days, for some, one’s home can be a sort of prison). For this reason, I would say that when we find ourselves in need during these times we shouldn’t be afraid to let others know – especially when they ask: “Is there anything I can help you with?”
At the same time, if we are in a position to offer help we should be attentive to the needs of our neighbors. There is something beautiful about anticipating someone’s needs, to have eyes that recognize when someone might be in difficulty and who might be struggling to ask for help. This is different than being nosy, of course. It is the recognition that real help seeks to preserve the dignity of our neighbor as we’re helping them. It is, in a word, to be thoughtful. Sometimes when we ask generically: “Is there anything you need?” it places a burden on the person asked. But if someone says to us: “I’m going to the store this afternoon – if you have a list, I’d be happy to pick some things up for you” it’s much easier to accept that offer, because it reveals a solidarity in our need. After all, everyone needs stuff from the store from time to time.
In order to help those in need we first must be aware that there’s a need. So, when we are the ones in need, we must pray for the humility to reveal our need to those in a position to help. When we are the ones in a position to help, we must ask for the grace to grow in thoughtfulness so that we might anticipate the needs of others, to spare them unnecessary humiliation, and grow in true solidarity with our neighbor. Mother Teresa famously said: “Thoughtfulness is the beginning of great sanctity.” Those of us who have experienced the thoughtfulness of others know how true that statement is.