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In Tough Times, Step Forward And Be Somebody To Lean On


A few days ago, a tweet came through my feed that made me really stop and think. It said, “Learn to live without always expecting people to be there for you. Sometimes all you need is you.” It wasn’t a profound tweet. We’ve all heard this said a hundred different ways, and it’s valid advice. Sometimes you need to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and move ahead. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you need help. Sometimes you need encouragement.

While I do think it’s good advice to learn to live without the “expectation” that others will be there for you, I think it’s just as valid to turn that around and say, “Learn to be there for others. Sometimes people need you.” If more people lived with that in mind, many of us wouldn’t find ourselves in the position where we have to say, “Suck it up. All you need is you.”

This has become more evident to me the older I get, not only as I reflect on how much I need encouragement from others, but how much others need it from me. Even though I was raised by a tough Marine who adopted the “Get it in gear” approach to life, I find that hard to sustain.

There have been times when all I had was myself and I had to overcome. Whether it was alone on the track when I was a runner and I had no one but myself (and God) to spur me on; whether it was sitting in front of my computer late at night, staring at the screen and not knowing if I could write another word; or whether it was after my divorce when I felt like I was the only person in the world with children who depended on me—in every instance, I had to dig deep and keep moving.

People Can’t Do Everything Themselves

During those times, I was thankful for my dad’s hard “get your ass in gear” kind of motivational love. But oftentimes in life, people need more. They need a different kind of encouragement. They need an advocate who will speak on their behalf, even against themselves and their own negative thoughts. They need someone to come alongside them and give them strength because they are empty, broken, poured out, and hopeless.

They don’t just need praise or inspirational slogans; they need someone to enter into their life in a personal way and fill them with courage. This involves getting to know them, reminding them of who they really are, comforting them with love, exhorting them, and counseling them. Bottom line, it takes active involvement from the encourager.

For a long time in my life, I felt guilty for needing encouragement. I thought I needed to do it all on my own, but that’s hard for me. I have a melancholy temperament, so I get discouraged easily. I allow my emotions to get in the way of my actions, and can become weighed down by negativity. Life isn’t easy, and I can let the hardships rob me of the vigor and confidence I need to accomplish even the smallest tasks at times. I let despair take over and I languish, unable to do the things I love, whether it’s writing or even spending time with friends. I’m not one of those who plows through life like a machine. I wish I could be, but I’m not.

I used to beat myself up about that until one day I kicked my pride to the curb and admitted to myself and others that I need help. I need encouragement. I need comfort when I’m down. I need exhortation when I’m wayward. I need counsel when I’m lost. I need someone to hold me when I’m in pain. I need empowerment when I feel like I can’t do anything. I need someone to remind me of who I truly am when I’ve lost sight of myself and my calling in life. I can’t go through this life alone.

I think we all are like that to one degree or another, but so many of us don’t realize it or we don’t want to admit it. We also confuse praise with encouragement. Praise is fleeting—what we really need is to be empowered. We have a generation today that has been raised on a boatload of praise but very little encouragement. Too many kids are given gold stars, but they aren’t empowered by the close presence of someone who can tap into the courage within so they can face life with both confidence and humility.

A Lack of Support Teaches People Helplessness

We’re a culture that is strong on the easy act of praise but weak on the hard work of encouragement. We put our hands together rather quickly for applause but are slow to put our hands in action, lifting the brokenhearted, serving the needy, and binding the wounded.

As a result of little real encouragement, we too often have a society marked by timidity and helplessness as people wait for others to do things for them; bitterness and a sense of entitlement from those who were always praised and never encouraged but who find themselves failing; or arrogance and pride as people make it on their own, accomplishing much but never thinking of those around them and how they could be helping and encouraging others who aren’t as self-motivated as they are.

The fact is, we can’t all do it on our own, and that’s not a bad thing. This doesn’t mean we’re useless or weak. It means we’re human. Life is hard. Life is full of tragedy and brokenness. We need encouragement. We need others to spur us on to good deeds, to accomplish our dreams, to reach our full potential, and to love others.

Psychiatrist Mark Goulston makes this point in his book “Get Out of Your Own Way” in relation to procrastination. “There are, of course, many reasons people procrastinate: self-doubt, boredom, fear of failure, the feeling of being unready or unprepared and so on,” he writes. “But these feelings, by themselves, don’t necessarily lead to procrastination. Often what tips the scales is going through them alone, with no one to help you, bolster you, or cheer you on.”

Goulston says a lot of the time people beat themselves up for being lazy or not having confidence, “but your real obstacle might be loneliness, especially if you procrastinate mainly on solitary tasks.”

Encouragement Isn’t Enabling

Needing help doesn’t mean having others do the hard work for us. That isn’t encouragement. That’s enabling. Encouragement means being an advocate, like a lawyer in a court of law, speaking against all the discouraging and defeatist voices in the world and in our own heads that accuse us of being a failure. Needing encouragement means finding someone who will be fully present in our lives, filling us with courage so we can rise up and be courageous.

This has been driven home for me recently as I’ve spent time with several friends—young moms with children, most under the age of 10. I’m in a different stage of life than they are. Almost all of my children are grown with only one still in high school (a junior). My other two and my three step-children have all left the nest to enter careers or go to college. So the days of screaming two-year-olds, whiny four-year-olds, talkative six-year-olds, and curious eight-year-olds are in the past.

I have an opportunity to give in ways I’ve never given before.

But I remember those times so well, and for me they were lonely. The children were all within a year or two of one another, and six little ones swirling around me drained every ounce of energy I could muster. I was also depressed because of my divorce, a fragile faith, and grief over a career that had been put on hold, if not entirely lost. I felt tired, useless, incompetent, and very much alone. Courage was the last thing I had. Hope was a fading light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

I made it, even though I’m rather tattered on the far side of it all. My main encourager during those days was the best friend I’ll ever have—my mom. Now that I’m older, I can be like her. I have an opportunity to give in ways I’ve never given before. I can love my young friends who are dealing with the difficulties of motherhood, whether it’s managing their kids or struggling with their marital relationships or just wrestling with the emotional difficulties that plague many women in our modern world.

I don’t live near most of them, so much of what I do is talk to them on the phone. I hear the exhaustion in their voices and the frustration. I try to be present for them. They need that. They need the time and the respect, even as they’re managing children—and often that’s while they’re trying to talk on the phone. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where I have to wait while children are corrected, fights are broken up, snacks are handed out, or bumps are soothed. I don’t mind. They’re moms. That’s what they do.

Be Gracious About Other People’s Limitations

I was recently talking with an older woman, however, whose children are also grown, and she was complaining about a conversation she had on the phone with a young mom who had several unruly children. The woman was frustrated that they were continuously interrupted by kids in the background. Exasperated, she said, “I’m just not going to talk to her anymore until she can make time when the kids aren’t butting in every second.”

As busy and overwhelmed as they are, they lift me up and fill me with hope.

I understood the woman’s frustration, but I disagreed. Maybe it’s because I was so lonely for so many years, so discouraged when I was a young mom, that I feel like the least I can do when I’m talking to my friends with young kids is put up with the crying in the background and the occasional, “Hold on, let me get them their sippy cups” or “You two stop fighting over the game controls!” blasting in my ear.

Being a young mom is hard, especially for those who once had a career and now don’t or for those who are still working while trying to raise their kids. I have a couple of friends who homeschool and do part-time work, so they’re isolated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The least I can do is listen to them during those moments when they’re in desperate need of adult conversation even as the kids are running around, interrupting, or making noise in the background.

As imperfect as I am, I try to encourage my friends, remind them of who they are, give them advice if they ask, talk about adult issues so they can feel sane again, go out to dinner when they can, encourage them that this is just a stage in their life and will soon pass. I am in a place where I can encourage them in that way, and I’m trying to be faithful to my calling. They need that, and I want to give it.

I think, in the end, I’m more blessed than they are. I’m blessed by giving, but they are also a constant encouragement to me. As busy and overwhelmed as they are, they lift me up and fill me with hope. They encourage me.

Asking for People to Meet Your Needs Isn’t Weakness

The need for encouragement is part of living in this world, and we aren’t doing one another any favors by not giving it. The Bible is full of exhortations to encourage one another. Why? Why not just say, “Rely on yourself” or only “Trust in God” (although there is that too). Why are there so many passages that say “encourage one another”? Because life is difficult, and it’s human to struggle, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

Is there someone in your life who is downcast, angry, withdrawn, underperforming, overwhelmed? Why ignore them?

We need our family and friends to build us up. We need our bosses to remind us of what we can really accomplish, inspiring us to greatness. We need our coaches, counselors, teachers, and pastors to come alongside us and spur us on with boldness and love. When we don’t have it, we flounder and fail, and even if we somehow overcome, we aren’t always happy and we’re certainly not humbled.

Asking for help, to say we’re in need, to say we just can’t do it alone is not weakness. That is probably one of the hardest things to do. Many people don’t ask, so those of us who can give need to be on the lookout for the needy, for the ones who are struggling and encourage them. Is there someone in your life who is downcast, angry, withdrawn, underperforming, overwhelmed? Why ignore them? Why think, “They’ll get it together on their own”—or worse, “It’s not my place to get involved. I did it alone; they’ll have to make it on their own too”?

We can do so much better. If there is someone in your life, either at school, work, church, in the neighborhood, and you know they are suffering or discouraged in some way, help them. You will be better for it, and so will they.

Our society is suffering right now. Discouragement. Fear. Anxiety. People are lost, feeling helpless and hopeless. This isn’t the time to say, “You can do it on your own.” They can’t. They’ve tried. Now they feel powerless and abandoned. That only feeds anger and resentment.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to build one another up instead of tearing one another down. We can go a long way as a society in alleviating the anger that is breeding so much division by reaching out to people in our lives and encouraging them, helping them to be free of fear and live a courageous life, full of confidence, humility, and love.