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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Wish Lists: The Importance of Asking

While attending a meeting recently one of the teen attendees walked back into the room and said, “Why are there sweet rolls in the kitchen?” The adults smiled and one said, “To eat!”

I really expected her to vanish and partake, but instead she stood there and mumbled something to the effect of how good they would taste. Seeing her discomfort, another adult asked, “Do you want to eat one?”

“Yes!” she said and remained standing there until the adult told her to go get one. Poof! She was gone.

In that moment, I saw myself as a child, teen, and adult and said to the woman next to me (who happened to be a counselor), “She couldn’t ask.”

“No, you are right. That was perceptive. She couldn’t ask.”

From there, we discussed the reasons behind not being able to ask. We agreed It would have been very shameful for her to ask and be told they weren’t for her. I understood the dilemma well and mention it in at least one of my books and another blog because it is so difficult to not simply be able to ask for something that you need or want. As this young girl proved, it requires a great deal of mental gymnastics to be asked if you want something that you can’t exactly ask for.

In my case, it really was much easier to give than receive. I have been thinking about my grandchildren and their Christmas wish lists. Their mother is always very diligent in getting them what they ask for. I appreciate this. The children probably don't fully understand the sacrifices she has made over the years to accomplish the task—usually giving Santa the credit for the most desired item. Her children know that if they ask, they will probably receive. They have no problem asking!

Some would call children who get what they ask for spoiled. I would call them loved. Sometimes they can’t get what they ask for, but this is explained to them. Sure, they get grumpy, but it doesn’t stop them from asking. There is nothing shameful in asking. Shame arrives when we feel unworthy because when what we ask for is not given and we internalize it as being because we are unworthy.

In therapy, I came face to face with my inability to ask for what I needed or wanted. When offered the opportunity to ask I often struggled to accomplish the task while my therapist waited patiently. I did similar things with my family who would be more than happy to provide for my requests—if I would just ask. When the teenager was unable to ask for the sweet roll, I understood the problem immediately! I also understood the root causes.

Anyone who has read BRAVE understands my relationship with my mother was fraught with dysfunction. That isn’t my point in relaying this part of the story. For some reason, she couldn’t seem to give exactly what was asked for or needed. Maybe something kind of like it, maybe something the request made her think of, maybe something less expensive, maybe…… well the list goes on and on. Sometimes the gifts were downright awkward. I I offered to take over wrapping as a teenager and peeked at the presents to prepare myself for the weirdness. I had to prepare Scott after we married but wasn’t sure how to help my children.

While thinking about my Christmas experiences and my mother’s odd giving habits, it became clear that I internalized her awkwardness as shame. It is still difficult to write about it. I would cut out pictures for her and direct her to the store and isle. To no avail. As a child, did it feel like I didn’t deserve to get the desired item? There was only one thing which was safe to request—dolls. I always got the requested doll. I had lots of dolls and am not sure why dolls were different.

It seems that she was incapable of choosing the requested gifts. I don’t know why, but her attention to the dolls tells me she didn’t miss the target intentionally. She was surprised when someone wasn’t exactly ecstatic over a gift. There was much shame in not acting appreciative. I became very resourceful at finding something good in everything. To my relief, my daughter seemed to understand the oddness and my son was always appreciative of the strange presents. A basket of rocks and a stuffed beaver became treasures.

For the past few days, I have been laboring over a gift for my granddaughter. She requested it several years ago, but I wasn’t in a place to accomplish the task. It feels good to finally say yes to her request—though I am not sure she will remember making it. The main thing is that I remembered and am making exactly what she asked for. It is important for her to grow up knowing it is OK to ask.

As a teacher, I think of children who stood in front of me mute because they needed to ask something but couldn’t. There were many guessing games over the years. Now I would do that differently by first work on relationship and trust and then patiently modeling how to ask. We all, adult and children alike, need to know it is safe to ask and that sometimes the request is really about being seen and receiving attention. If you think asking for a pencil is difficult for a child, consider how shameful it feels to simply need attention.

There are lots of us who can’t ask for what we need or want. We have stories that caused this and it affects us in relationships with other humans and with God. Our fear of the shame that we internalized in the process of learning not to ask affects us in so many ways. Jesus knew this. “Ask and you will receive.” Our theology and interpretations of this have made it so complicated. We have added “in God’s will” and taken it to extremes with prosperity thinking, but Jesus was simply trying to get his listeners to understand that God wanted good things for them and it was OK to ask. Just ask.

I have to laugh at how often I read the part about the father who, when asked for a loaf of bread gives a rock, and considered it possible. We all have to separate our own stories from who God is. In giving, we experience that part of God who desires to give us good things. We are always happy to give, but there is something so gratifying in giving someone exactly what they asked for—especially if it requires great logistical effort. I have watched God do that for me over the past four years and am appreciative of all those who stepped in to be helping “elves.” I asked for healing and God wanted me to understand that asking was the right thing to do.

Yes, it is a blessing to give and a joy to receive, but learning to ask is a part we often ignore. Christmas wish lists have a very important purpose!

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