Asking for What We Need
An experience I’ve had many times in pastoral ministry is that of a person who is going through a difficult time becoming angry because, “No one from the church has reached out to me/ us.”
Recently, when responding to such a person, I said, “You’re right. We let you down. I’m sorry.” And we had let this person down. Our set-up for knowing what was going on with people and for helping out was too informal, too dependent on who you knew. People slipped through the cracks.
And yet it was also true that this particular person had assumed that “the church” knew what was going on, and what she and her family needed. But we didn’t. Our information was inaccurate and incomplete.
This happens a lot, not just in the church but in all sorts of human relationships. People get to feeling overlooked, neglected, forgotten . . . whether by family, friends, church, neighborhood or professional colleagues. As I told that particular person, I get it. We could and should have done better.
And yet there is another side to the coin. At least sometimes, we who are hurting need to do better at asking for what we need. We assume people know what is going on. They must know, right? And if they really cared, they should know what we need without us having to tell them.
Some will disagree with me that hurting people need to ask for what they need. Someone is going through a very hard time and you are also asking them to reach out and say what they need? That’s asking a lot. Still, stewing silently and alone, growing angry and resentful . . . until we unload on someone doesn’t seem a really great option either.
Many of us — me included — need to do better at asking for what we need.
But why is that so hard? Here’s why . . . saying we are sad, lonely or in pain, that we need help, love, attention means being vulnerable. I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot easier to think of myself as someone who gives help than has someone who needs help. Not many of us are experienced at or easily able to say, “I’m struggling . . . I need to be listened to for the next half hour . . . or I would really like to be included in your next party.”
To admit that we have needs and to express them puts us in a vulnerable position. We might be rejected. And that’s not a position we want to be in. If we find ourselves there, we can easily think that there is something wrong with us. But maybe not? Maybe we’re just human beings, mortals who are made for relationship, who need other people in a society that often isolates us from one another.
Here’s a take on this that may seem a little out of left field. Readers of this blog know I am a big fan of Ezra Klein and his podcast. Recently, Klein had Dan Savage, the longtime author of the sex and relationship advice column, “Savage Love” on his podcast. It was really good. Check it out.
Savage said he thinks gay people, like himself, have done a lot for us straight people. For one, they have helped straight people begin to “ask for what we need” in a sexual relationship. He pointed out that straight couples tend to assume what sex means and will look like. Not so for gay people. Sex between gay people often begins with talking about preferences. Gay people, said Savage, are used to asking for what they need and want.
Okay, I know I’ve made a big jump from pastoral situations in the church to sex. The through-line is developing our capacity and skills for asking for what we need and want from others — rather than stewing in silence as resentments fester so that the first thing out of our mouths is an angry word of blame. If, every time you call, your mother, “Why haven’t you called? You never call!” chances of future contact aren’t enhanced.
And if you try to amp up your “asking for what you need skills” and don’t quite get it right, go easy on yourself. There’s grace for those who have the courage to try hard and unfamiliar things.