The Power of Being Helpable

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"Why do so many people aim to be normal?" asks Bonnie St. John. Instead, she encourages us to aim higher and attain our highest level of success by being helpable.

By Bonnie St. John

Walking through the doors of the Shriners Hospital in Los Angeles was a form of time travel for me. Instantly, I was transported back to the five-year-old me, in the hospital on Halloween and dressed as a bat, leaping, limping, and flapping my wings as I went trick-or-treating down the corridor of the administrative offices. I watched that silly apparition, wistfully reliving the last days of having my own two feet.

As I continued down the hallways, I saw more ghosts of me at various ages: the ten-year-old who came in for another surgery to shorten her stump, the fifteen-year-old back for yet another surgery to have pins removed from her bones. I remembered nights of screaming in my sleep, hours of crying in the physical therapy room, and the endless tedium of a child being trapped in a hospital bed with no parents, no siblings, and no real friends around to offer comfort. Every time I walked these floors, it was a lonely, painful, excruciating experience.

Drowning under these tortuous waves of emotion, I nevertheless fought the overwhelming urge to turn around and run out in the other direction. Staying there and meeting the current residents was something I had to do. Like a soldier returning to the front lines to drag out the injured, I couldn’t leave them behind. Seeing these kids in bandages, I knew there was a war—a war for their hearts and souls. I had fought my own battles decades ago, but for them the fight was just beginning. The reason I had come back was suddenly so clear.

I smiled at the group. They smiled back. I began walking around the room with energy and purpose, showing the kids my Olympic medals and autographing postcards. I wore shorts so that my sporty leg could be easily seen and admired. I asked their names, shook hands, hugged, and made contact with each person there. I wanted them to see and feel the future that was waiting for them, a future where dreams can come true. Time travel works both ways.

Normal Is Overrated

Toward the end of the visit, a mother who was seated in the back of the large room put her arm around her thirteen-year-old son who was badly burned on his face and arms. She leaned forward and asked earnestly, "Do you think my son will ever lead a normal life?"

I paused for a moment. Every fiber of my being resisted the idea of simply saying, "Yes."At first, I didn’t know why. Of course, that one syllable is all this struggling mother wanted to hear. She needed to hear the Olympic athlete tell her, and her son, that it was all going to be okay. That he’s still "normal"—not hopelessly damaged and therefore relegated to living an inferior life.

Then, it just came out of my mouth: "I hope not," I blurted out, "He should aim higher!"

I've learned the hard way that we all can be extraordinary and unique. Normal is overrated. What's so great about being normal? So often we confuse what society calls "normal" with "perfect." It took me a long time to figure out that normal is really just mediocre. How can we think bigger, even though we don't have a lot of resources, even though we don't have everything easy? How can we draw in more support and resources for our dream?

Advice From a Star Maker 

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a great man, Ken Kragen. Ken was a master "star maker" during the high-flying 1970s and 1980s in the entertainment business. He is responsible for taking singers like Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Travis Tritt, and Trisha Yearwood from complete unknowns to fame and fortune as recording artists or movie and television stars. Ken made superstars. I was curious what he had learned about the difference between just being a great performer—like the hundreds you see in Nashville on any given day—and achieving the kind of mega-fame they dream about.

Ken told me a lot of things, but one observation really jumped out. It wasn’t enough to look good, work hard, and be talented. Those attributes were the table stakes to get you in the game. What really made the difference was very simply how much help they got. He who gets the most help wins! This resonated so strongly with me that I even coined a new term for it, "being helpable."

I spent my whole life thinking that my life was all about striving to be strong and ruggedly independent. With my disability, the idea was to move from crutches to walking freely. As I grew up, my goal was to be financially independent from my mom—to take care of myself. As a woman working in corporate America, I had had to prove that I was as good as, or better than, the Y-chromosome in the next cubicle.

Help, I had been taught, was something you asked for when you were weak, in trouble, or incapable. The goal was always to be strong and unassailable. Or was it?

I began to notice all the little ways I stopped other people from helping me. When my daughter asked, "Mom, do you want help with the dishes?"

My usual response was, "No, honey, you have a lot of homework, I’m fine."

So, I practiced in the mirror: "Yes, I’d love to have your help in the kitchen," until it felt like a more natural response.

I started to let men open doors for me and carry heavy packages—literally lightening my load. Beyond accepting more help, I forced myself to ask for it: a ride to the airport from a friend, hiring someone to help with cleaning once a week, and getting a trainer to help me stay fit and lose weight, among other things.

The Joy of Being Helpable

This "helpable" thing, I realized, not only allows you to be more successful, it brings a tremendous amount of joy into the world. Sometimes it's about giving other people the opportunity to help you. That is in itself a gift.

There was a woman I met whose husband was called up to serve in the Iraq War. She had a stressful corporate job, so her neighbors got together and offered to take turns cooking dinner for her and her family every evening while her husband was away. She said, "My first reaction was they think I can't feed my family because I'm a working mom. This is an insult from all the housewives."

But she swallowed her pride and agreed. The result was amazing. "My kids ate so well. There was a vegetable, a meat, and a dessert every night." It was also a great bonding exercise for her kids to get to know their community.

If she had refused their offer, she would have denied her neighbors a great opportunity. This behavior wasn’t only about being nice and helping a neighbor. By helping a family of a brave serviceman who was risking his life to fight for our freedom, this was a way for her community to serve their country.

There are so many stories we all know of things that should have been impossible, but that people have accomplished anyway. It is important to remember that we are not defined by our circumstances. We're not defined by the resources we have. We are defined by something else: our passion, our vision, and the strategy we've built with the support of others.

Hoping for a better life doesn’t mean that I suddenly get to have two legs, discover I have rich parents, or miraculously become a person who didn’t suffer as a child. It’s not a fantasy world where I have no problems and blend into the crowd. Hope means stretching yourself, trying new things, and finding out what a better life looks like for you, now, in this world.

No matter what your circumstances, dare to dream. Dare to hope for ridiculous things. Dare to be helpable. Dare to aim higher.