Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking

“All humans want to be seen; it's a basic need. Even the shy ones who don't want to be looked at.”

“There may be a great fire in your soul” mourned Vincent van Gogh to his brother “but no one ever comes to warm himself by it.”

“All humans want to be seen” states the singular Amanda Palmer (born 30 April 1976) in The Art of Asking. “It’s a basic need. Even the shy ones who don’t want to be looked at.”

Loneliness is not solitude, loneliness is not being seen.

We form relationships to be seen. Poet David Whyte defined friendship as “a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness” and I think the institution of marriage is a means to bear witness to another’s life.

Photograph of "Friendship" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of friendship: hydrangeas, mums, and roses positioned to convey the building blocks of friendship. It is a neat, deliberate and uplifting arrangement of blue flowers to convey tranquility and yellow for happiness. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Rock star, social fundraising icon and woman vulnerable in body and heart, Amanda Palmer, argues that asking (and being asked) is another means to see and be seen.

Years ago, while nursing a nascent music career, Palmer supplemented her income as a living statue in Harvard Square. Dressed as a bride she stood on a box with flowers, extending one when a passerby gifted her with a coin or two.

I wanted to be seen.

That was absolutely true. All performers – all humans – want to be seen; it’s a basic need. Even the shy ones who don’t want to be looked at.

But I also wanted, very much, to see.

What I loved as much as, possibly even more than, being seen was sharing the gaze. Feeling connected.

I needed the two-way street, the exchange, the relationship, the invitation of true intimacy that I got every so often from the eyes of my random street patrons. It didn’t happen often.

But it happened enough to keep me on the box.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson has spoken of the connective tissues of mutual loneliness. In that single, fleeting moment Palmer found a note of humanity, a sustained emotion that held her in harmony with a stranger.

I loved all the handwritten notes people took the time to write and leave in the hat.

You’re beautiful.

Thank you for changing my day.

I’ve been watching you for an hour.

I love you.


The Bride was so easy to love.

She was silent.

She was blank, harmless, beautiful…just loving people and giving them flowers.

Because…who knew?

She could be anything.

Anyone.

In these remarkable offerings, a contradiction arises: we want to be seen, but only when we are our most palatable do people even want to see us. Palmer admits “In real life, I was the furthest thing from quiet, and the furthest thing from perfect.”

How do we become someone who asks for help in the midst of imperfection?

I’ve written before about two – handed giving, a concept of giving without wanting anything in return. This unconditionality of giving – how do we get there? How do we say to another I will give to you because you are struggling, even when you do not appear quiet or silent or even if you do not hand me a flower.

How do we demand that for ourselves?

“Because that’s the only way it works” shrugs Palmer.

When you accept somebody’s offer for help, whether it’s in the form of food crash space, money, or love, you have to trust the help offered. You can’t accept things halfway and walk through the door with your guard up.

When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family.

Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy.
When that happens, the correct response is not:

Fuck! I knew I couldn’t trust anybody!

The correct response is:

Some people just suck.

Photograph of Amanda Palmer for Palmer's "The Art of Asking" in the Examined Life Library.
Amanda Palmer, 2008.

We are prone to respond to the individual circumstance with hyperbole: all people are like this, all things are the same, it will never work.

No. Some people just suck.

Palmer is a natural story-teller who flicks aside pretense and weakness with a few swats.1

And yet the power of The Art of Asking is that as strong as she is, as barefaced and bold, her vulnerabilities propel her, not her strengths. She hears those needs and gives them audience. She sees herself first, then sees others.

I run The Examined Life alone, people have told me to hire help. I’ve never been able to articulate why I can’t… (but I can’t!). Palmer captures it beautifully.

I could hire help, but not to do the fundamental things that create emotional connections: the making of the art, the feeling -with-other-people at a human level. Nobody can do that work for me – no Internet marketing company, no manager, no assistants. It had to be me.

That’s what I do all day on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and my blog. The platform is irrelevant. I’ll go wherever the people are. What’s important is that I absorb, listen, talk, connect, help, and share. Constantly. The net gets so strong at a certain point that I can let it go for a few days – maybe weeks – and it keeps weaving and bolstering itself.

Art is not just creating, it is connecting. Singer Billie Holiday wrote that when she found a song she could feel, she’d “just sing it”, and others could feel it too. Creating those moments of seeing and being seen, that is the way forward, the way through, the means and the end.

I love Palmer’s net metaphor as a means of investing in social capital. I think of John Steinbeck who just wanted to be left alone when he was writing Grapes of Wrath, and illustrator Maira Kalman who has made an art form of seeing others.

I cannot tell myself to ask. But I can remind others that it is ok. So can Palmer. She tells a wonderful story of Henry David Thoreau who lived alone on Walden Pond without any social assistance… and omitted the fact that his mother brought him a weekly supply of donuts.

Palmer says who cares, accept help. Take the donuts.

To the artists, creators, scientists, nonprofit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers, and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it is appearing: please, take the donuts.