July 15, 2013 by Jean
For much of my life, I’ve been regarded as a fiercely independent person. When I was in my early teens, there was an ad on television (I no longer have any idea what product was being advertised) that featured a conversation between a mother and daughter and ended with the punch line, “Mother, I’d rather do it myself.” Whenever this ad would come on, my whole family would hoot and chortle and exclaim, “It’s Jean! It’s Jean”!” A decade later, when I was a young married woman, my husband’s most bitter complaint about me was that I was “too damned independent.”
In the 35 years that I’ve been living alone, my independent streak has been a very handy quality. I’ve often argued that one person can do almost anything if you just stop and think first about how to do it. This conviction was affirmed in my first decade of living alone when the large cabinet television I had inherited from my parents died. I went out and bought a new portable television, and lived for months with it perched on top of the cabinet containing the dead television. Then, as I drove home from work one evening, I noticed all kinds of furniture and appliances out along the sides of the road and realized that this was the one week a year when the city trash collection would pick up any item – my chance, finally, to get rid of the dead TV. Except that there was no one else home in my apartment building to help me get the monster from my 2nd floor apartment down to the street. The dead television was way too heavy for me to lift and carry alone; but I realized with a sinking feeling that if I didn’t find a way to get it out to the curb, I’d have to live with it for another year. That realization provided considerable motivation for creative thinking. Eventually, I figured out that I could get the cabinet and its electronic innards out to the street without help by rolling it end over end in a kind of controlled fall down the stairs and out to the curb.
In more recent years, when I bought a screened gazebo to put up on my new deck, I was chagrinned to open the box and find that the first instruction was that erecting the gazebo required a minimum of two people and absolutely couldn’t be done by one person alone. With no one available to help, I decided to try it alone. Two hours later, it was all put together – and I’ve been putting it up every spring and taking it down every fall since without assistance.
The downside of figuring out how to do two-person jobs alone and priding myself on the ability to do so has been that I lost the art of asking for help. Indeed, as time went on and I took on more and more complex projects alone, asking for help started to feel like a sign of failure, and I found it more and more difficult to do so. The result in recent years has been a number of home and garden projects stalled because I haven’t figured out how to finish them alone and I also haven’t figured out how to get help with them.
For me, part of growing older is developing a more nuanced understanding of what I can and can’t do on my own. This summer, as I commit myself to making progress on one problem project each week (see Retirement Preview: The Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle), I am learning to accept my own limitations, recognizing that remaining independent in the ways that really count (for example, being able to live alone) involves giving up some of my famous independence, and learning how to get help when I need it.