Hands Outstretched and Met: Human Encounter Distilled to The Act, and Art, of Asking

“Everybody struggles with asking.”
Amanda Palmer

If December is the season for giving, what is the season for asking? Let’s outstretch our hands and make space for our needs.

Please help. Please notice. Please pick up my shattered pieces and carry me for a step…

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
“You fell – but I’ve got you.” from Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Courtesy of the book.

For years, to supplement her artist income, musician Amanda Palmer stood dressed as a bride near Harvard University campus. Completely still. Coming to brief life when a passerby gave her a buck.

Almost every important human encounter boils down to the act, and the art, of asking. Asking is, in itself, the fundamental building block of any relationship.

Constantly and usually indirectly, often wordlessly, we ask each other—our bosses, our spouses, our friends, our employees—in order to build and maintain our relationships with one another.

Will you help me?

Can I trust you?

Are you going to screw me over?

Are you suuuure I can trust you?

And so often, underneath it all, these questions originate in our basic human longing to know: Do you love me?

From Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Palmer perforates the thick space between herself and strangers, if only briefly.

I imagine young Ernest Hemingway when he stepped into Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment and asked the established writer to review his stories.

She said that she liked them except one called ‘Up in Michigan.’ ‘It’s good,’ she said. ‘That’s not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable. That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.

From Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

In his capacity as an editor, T.S. Eliot gave succor to a young, extremely talented Marianne Moore, persuading Moore to publish a collection of poems though she doubted her ability.

Years later, Eliot also met the outstretched hands of Denise Levertov — the British-American poet who, at the age of twelve, sent poems to the American-British poet, Eliot, who replied with a two-page type-written letter of encouragement.

I imagine his largess owed to his own need; early in his career Eliot himself had two open palms. Fellow poet Ezra Pound cobbled together a “Bel Esprit” fund to support Eliot as a full-time poet. Hemingway donated.

I think of President Ulysses S. Grant at the end of his life. Former President and General, yes, but of late a failed businessman with failing health. He happened to throw some memoir notes by his acquaintance Mark Twain, who immediately became involved when he realized Grant was floundering. Not only did they form a deep friendship, but Twain edited and published Grant’s superb memoirs and earned both men a good sum of money.

Palmer reminds us: “Everybody struggles with asking.”

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
“What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy. “Help,” said the horse. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Or consider the righteous James Baldwin, who had left America’s feckless social laws and ingrained bigotry to settle in Paris, but who was persuaded (Baldwin’s words) by his childhood friend editor Sol Stein to return to America and pen ten astoundingly important essays that became Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.

I don’t remember Baldwin’s resistance to doing the book but I do remember the editorial process, helped by recently finding my line-by-line editorial notes and Baldwin’s responses, which are included in the correspondence section of the book. Writers can be wary of editors they don’t know well. By the time Baldwin and I had to deal with Notes of the Native Son, the overlay of a friendship of a dozen years made the process easier.

From Sol Stein’s Native Sons

And then there is my beloved Henry David Thoreau, who went to “live simply” but could only do so on his friend Emerson’s land (I learned that fact from Amanda Palmer).

This Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a letter of encouragement to Walt Whitman after Whitman’s epic poem “Leaves of Grass” was poorly received. And all three of these cosmic marvels, in some way, influenced poet Mary Oliver two centuries later in poetry, in mind, and in her endless quest to sit in eternity.1

From all these outstretch hands I suppose more than the “asking” connects each story. It is a deep, unspoken desire to be seen, to connect. At various points in our lives, we want someone to tell us “I see you. You embodied spirit. You matter.”

We want to say those words to others.

Palmer reminds us: “All humans… want to be seen; it’s a basic need.”

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
Mackesy’s simple, elegant drawings tell the story of support between these unlikely companions. “They are all different, like us, and each has their own weaknesses” writes Macksey. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Of course, this brings me to Rilke. Although his poetry can satiate any appetite for profoundness, Rainer Maria Rilke is well-known today for a series of letters he wrote to an aspiring poet, Franz Xavier Kappus, who outreached to Rilke in hopes of guidance.

Your letter only reached me a few days ago. Let me thank you for the great and endearing trust it shows. There is little more I can do, I cannot go in the nature of your verses, for any critical intention is too remote from me. There is nothing less apt to touch a work of art than critical words: all we end up with there is more or less felicitous misunderstandings. Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe.

Excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to Franz Xavier Kappus

In response to this great endearing trust handed to him, Rilke corresponded with Kappus for a decade, providing gentle thoughts and subtle illumination.

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry when certain editors turn your efforts down. Now (since you have allowed me to offer you advice) let me ask you to give up all that. You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.

Charlie Mackesy's illustrations for "the Boy, the mole, the fox and the House" featured in The Examined Life Library.
“Life is difficult but you are loved.” Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

“Virginia Woolf is my teacher,” admits American memoirist and narrator of our deepest notions of self, Dani Shapiro.

I keep her near me in the form of her A Writer’s Diary. I flip open the book to a random page and encounter a kindred spirit who walked this road before me, and who—though her circumstances were vastly different from my own—makes me feel less isolated in the world.

From Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing

I feel less isolated when I read John Steinbeck’s journals. I open them often, asking for something. I sigh at his sorrow and self-doubt.

Ultimately, that is what we seek with outstretched hands. Not answers nor resources, nor avenues to greatness, but rather to announce our self and be seen. To connect and commune.1

What if we did this more? What if we met each other through this essential human need? Rather than affiliations based on geography, opinions, or accomplishments?

What might happen?

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
Mackesy also gifts his books and drawings around England, where they will be seen and where people will feel loved. Like this one in London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I’d like to close with a quick note on a beautiful relationship.

In his considered book about our death anxiety, psychologist Irvin D. Yalom expresses gratitude towards his mentor, Rollo May: “Rollo May mattered to me as an author, as a therapist, and finally, as a friend.”

May was one of the foremost psychologists and authors of the 20th century, known for augmenting the discipline with a philosophical concept of “being.” Yalom was inspired by May’s words and aligned his career with May’s thinking.

Their relationship, initiated by Yalom’s request for professional guidance, was always characterized by May giving succor to the younger Yalom. As May aged and deteriorated in body and self, Yalom stepped into a more supportive role, eulogizing the great man and speaking his memory to the world.

Go on. Stretch your fingers and lift your palm. Extend your arm in a long, raised line. Breathe deeply and exhale. Now for the hard bit: stand there. With your hand open.

For as long as it takes.