“The Myth of Self-Sufficiency”: Why Does It Take a Crisis To Create Systems of Collective Care?

Imagine a world where collective care was a daily practice—rather than a reaction to cancer, global pandemics and structural oppression.

"The Myth of Self-Sufficiency": Why Does It Take a Crisis To Create Systems of Collective Care?
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What Cancer Taught Me About Belonging to One Another

When I found out my 7-year-old daughter had cancer, in the middle of a pandemic, I did not cry. I sat in shock in the surgical waiting room for five long hours. The crying didn’t come when she had her first dose of radiation or her first infusion of chemo. 

The crying came, instead, at the most unexpected of moments: moments of care. Meals started arriving on our doorstep—handmade tikka masala, warm sourdough, fresh flowers. A care pack with personalized capes instantly turning us into a team of superheroes on our journey into treatment.

They all brought me tears. Something about people reaching out, during their busy lives, to care for us, the intimacy of it all, turned me into an emotional puddle. 

As our neighbors pushed a 500-pound free piano the three blocks to our house so that we could keep ourselves entertained through a winter of social distancing, I started to wonder why we’d waited so long to be in community like this. Why did it take cancer to create this sort of intimate collective care? 

The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

Pre-cancer and pre-COVID, it seems we had somehow all absorbed a message that we shouldn’t struggle, or at least we shouldn’t let other people know we were struggling; we definitely shouldn’t ask for what we need. 

And it was making us isolated and stressed: We were all barely hanging on as we struggled with the strain of a too-busy, too-individualistic lifestyle, as we tried to prove we could take care of ourselves by suffering in our nuclear families alone.

This white supremacy culture I’d absorbed (as a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, educated woman), about what it means to be self-sufficient, hurt me and my close social networks through missed opportunities to be in community. These norms also lead to deep-seeded, almost undetectable, judgements about who deserves help in society more broadly. If I do not deserve to ask for help, why should others? 

But, with cancer, people started showing up. And my crying got worse. Friends started to offer their talents and time: Monday morning ukulele lessons. Homemade videos for creating animal shaped tater tots. Aunties and girlfriends dropped everything to be with my son when an early morning appointment meant leaving home before the sun was up. It was people giving of themselves to make our lives brighter and easier to manage. 

Cancer was the perfect, most socially acceptable reason to need others. Our struggle was deemed difficult and faultless enough that we were not shamed for needing help, not questioned for our role in creating the problem, and not expected to go it alone. 

And I started changing too. I began to ignore that little voice that said my needs were a burden. My community also felt scared and sad and were looking for something to do. Helping made them part of the solution and connected them to our family. 

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Collective Care to Survive Systemic Failures

The support I was receiving from my family and friends—the tear-jerking kind—was just the icing on a foundational layer of support afforded to me by my skin color, education and economic status. I did not worry that the doctors, upon seeing me, wouldn’t take me seriously. My health insurance covered the nearly $130,000 hospital bill for my daughter’s surgery. My employer allowed me to work from home, offering family leave as needed. Some of us have come to expect these systemic supports, while others of us do not know them. And without them, the need for collective care only increases.

Through all of this, our research team, at the University of Denver, was studying mutual aid. Many communities had engaged in collective care to survive centuries of oppressive, discriminatory practices and systemic failures: Communities of color, queer and trans communities, refugee and immigrant communities had created informal systems of support and collective care for generations. 

Mutual aid enables individuals with shared lived experiences to care for one another when systems do not. Their collective care not only makes life survivable—it creates movements that undergird significant social change. 

Surprisingly, early on in the pandemic, mutual aid appeared to be embraced. Our team discovered that the pandemic shifted everyone’s sense of who needs help: All of the sudden, many of us were vulnerable and isolated in new ways. Mutual aid groups were popping up everywhere—people picking up medicine for neighbors, sewing masks, sharing bread. The pandemic, like cancer, seemed to be a worthy reason for needing support. We seemed to belong to one another uniquely in this moment. 

But this sense of societal-level collective care didn’t last long. Fairly quickly, at least in the U.S., the simple act of wearing a mask became a symbol of the tensions between individual freedom and collective responsibility.

After months at home, our family took a short trip to a nearby mountain town. In walking through the quaint quiet town with our daughter in her unicorn mask and bald head, we encountered a patio drinker who aggressively yelled at us, “Take off those masks; we’re outside!” I watched the spit fly from his mouth as he yelled at us about our unnecessary precautions and felt a deep sadness. We were clearly not all in this together. 

A pandemic, like cancer, impacts people differently based on their hidden struggles, social locations and identities. And our society continues to struggle with whether we are responsible for ourselves or for one another. 

Collective Care as Everyday Practice

Our newest helper is my retired aunt, a former elementary school teacher, who has come out of retirement to conduct weekly video chats where she helps my daughter read.  I listen to them giggle at the pictures in their shared book, as my aunt gently prompts my daughter through words that are a bit too difficult. The joy is mutual: The act of receiving care matches the joy of giving of oneself, making another’s life a bit more manageable. We must find ways to make this happen more often.

We started a collective care pod. I send out a weekly survey link to my close friends, those struggling in their own homes just down the street: “Check-in, report how stressed you are this week; describe your stressors and joys. Check off the types of support that would be helpful—a homemade meal, a walk, child care, a text to check in.”

The ask appears small, but it is really quite big. Share your struggles—we all have them; ask for help (you can’t always take care of it all on your own); support others when you have the capacity. 

At first, there was reluctance among friends, a hesitance to confess or ask for too much. Then, there was relief. The ebb and flow of stress and support could pulse through a broader network with greater collective resources.

And this may be a place to start. If we can experience the relief of giving and receiving support among our friends and family, this could shift our understanding of who needs and deserves help. And, by holding on tightly to these collective assumptions, could that not extend to our broader communities—encouraging us to wear a mask, not only to protect ourselves, but to protect others?

Imagine a world where collective care was a daily practice rather than a reaction to cancer, global pandemics and structural oppression.

By engaging in collective care, we may begin to believe that we belong to one another. And if we do, the tears will flow, and we will all be better off.

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Kimberly Bender, PhD, MSW, is a professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Watch her lightening talk on Belonging.