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99 tips for a better world (27 of 99): be a burden

Image: Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi

Image: Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi

I hate to be a burden.

At the supermarket register I frantically grab my groceries, change and receipt and bolt away somewhere less conspicuous to organise myself.

I know that when someone asks, ‘What do you want to eat?’ answering ‘I don’t mind, whatever you want’ is NOT helpful. So instead I will try to read your mind so I can give you a definite answer that is also exactly what you wanted to hear.

I loathe the idea that I’m putting anyone out. Inconveniencing someone. Irritating someone.

The cruel joke is that I am always a burden. I don’t have a car so I’m always asking for lifts. I’ve spent enough of my life living out of a suitcase to have slept in every spare room in Melbourne. I spend quite a lot of time feeling guilty.

When it came time to visit friends in various cities across the United States recently I immediately started to worry about where I would sleep. The offers of couches to sleep on came in fast (my friends are generous types), but I worried that I would get in the way. I thought about booking hotels, but seeing as I was travelling to see my friends, it seemed odd to stay in downtown hotels that weren’t even close to friends’ apartments.

So, despite my jittery nerves, I embarked on a weeks-long journey of couch/bed/air-mattress-hopping.

Benjamin Franklin’s quote played on my mind with persistent regularity:

‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.’

I tried to limit my stays to no more than three days, but a couple of dear friends were lumped with me for four or five.

So, how was it?

I got in the way. I scattered the contents of my backpack across living rooms even though I tried hard not to. I was an extra body to share the bathroom with. I hovered around trying to be helpful, which was probably the most annoying thing I could do. It was one of the best trips of my life.

I was reminded that even though it can feel uncomfortable, it’s good to stay with friends, use up their time, invade their space, rely on them for things. That’s what friends do.

Getting in each other’s way is called “connecting”. Part of the fallout from our increasingly independent lives is that we seem to believe that friendship and love and any kind of relationship can be carried out in a way that means no one is disturbed. Indeed, along these lines, the worst kind of relationship is the kind that interrupts your life in any way.

Where did we come up with this nonsense?

I realised that my reluctance to burden others was also a reluctance to need others. Because needing others…DUN DUN DUN…is risky business. What if you reach out the hand of need and get nothing back? Ouch. What if you need others too much and become that hopeless case your friends and family talk about with exasperation?

I was reluctant to risk bothering my friends in case they got frustrated with me and it damaged our friendship. I was hoping to preserve my relationships from the part that involved needing each other (or in this case, me needing them). I wanted to save our friendship from…friendship.

Instead, I spent long days with friends who I haven’t seen for years. I entered into their worlds and saw their lives up close. I saw them in their pyjamas and they saw my crazy morning hair. Did we risk driving each other crazy? Absolutely. It’s risky business this friendship business.

Funny thing is, when someone is reluctant to ask for help moving house or babysitting, I say, ‘Remember, people want to be able to help. They want to express their love and appreciation through actions, and they want to feel useful. They want to return all those favours you’ve done for them.’ I am very good at dishing out advice I don’t take on myself.

Would it be easier to stay in a hotel? Absolutely. But how many inside jokes, crazy drunk stories and shared secrets do you have with a hotel concierge?

This doesn’t mean your friends’ doors will always be open, or indeed that they should always be open. There are times in life when you can’t share it all with friends and that’s okay. Saying ‘no’ to a friend is risky business too. A good friend will understand.

I’ve still contemplated booking a hotel from time to time when it feels a bit too hard and my introverted self is craving some hibernation. But I remind myself that this is the good bit. These are the moments our friendships thrive upon. Friendships – especially long distance ones – need to be reenergised with new stories. The story won’t always be, ‘Remember that time we travelled through Vietnam together ten years ago.’ It will be, ‘Remember that time you came and stayed for a few days?’

Hopefully those conversations will continue when my friends come to Australia and stay with me. They can even stay for four or five days if they like.


2 thoughts on “99 tips for a better world (27 of 99): be a burden

  1. I love this tip! I’ve recently started reminding myself that I like helping out, buying other people a coffee, giving them couch space when they need it… and that it’s nice for everyone to have turn at both helping and being helped out, in whichever way. I think we need it to keep up our humanity levels! Great piece.

    • Thanks Helen!

      Yes, humanity levels! Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell when our humanity levels, like energy levels, were dropping? We could get a humanity boost by reaching out to someone and offering/asking for help.

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