I’m a sucker for cartoons. Cartoons are kind of like fairy tales. In stepping away from the usual rules of “reality” they can help us see the world, and our part in it, more clearly.
Finding Dory is like that for me. Vibrant, gumptious, and optimistic, Dory navigates her severe memory challenges with both verve and grace that astound me. Because Dory is such a strong and vivacious individual, thoroughly enterprising and hopeful, her acceptance of help stands out to me. In allowing others to assist her in her journey, she gifts them with a view of their strength and abilities they might not have even known were there. Dory demonstrates the value of accepting help from others without sacrificing her vitality or individuality. Most striking, she exudes a spirit of generosity when she receives help.
Dory challenges me because she shows that when I accept help, I give the helper a chance to discover their gifts. Since losing track of her parents as a youngster, Dory’s ambition is to find home and reunite with her family. The task is near impossible though because of Dory’s substantial memory loss. How can one find home and family when there’s no memory of where one’s from?
She needs friends, and she must accept their help. By teaming up with friends, Dory becomes a part of a community of givers and receivers. The remarkable thing about the offering and accepting of help is that it doesn’t flow just one way. In receiving it, she offers it; in offering it, she accepts it. By accepting the support of her friends, Dory gifts them with finding their courage and capacity for care and adventure. By showing them what bravery and tenacity look like, she helps them to realize their strength. Dory is a lesson that interdependence is not the same thing as weakness. Genuine community empowers us to discover ourselves. After all, our identity is often defined and sculpted not by who we are when we are by ourselves, but by who we are relationally. Or, as Catholic philosopher and l’Arche founder Jean Vanier asserts, “we do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging.”
For me, the most memorable example of this lesson is Hank the octopus (or septopus, actually). He’s a cranky misanthropist whose tagline is, “I just want to live in a glass box alone!” Though tongue in cheek, Hank congratulates Dory on her disability, saying that if she has no memory she has no problems because she has no one to worry about. Hank’s time with Dory teaches him that having someone to worry about isn’t a bad thing; it’s a really, really good thing. Through helping her navigate the marine life center, he grows as an individual. Dory gifts him with insight into the nature of friendship.
Hank isn’t the only one who grows as a result of Dory’s need. She also helps Bailey the beluga whale find his echolocation skills and Destiny the visually impaired whale shark find the courage to swim outside the tank.
But while it is well and good to talk about the wonderful “gift” of offering a need, I struggle with it. It’s a lesson I intuitively know but stumble at putting it into practice.
Everything inside of me craves independence; the ability to proclaim, “I did it myself!” From community building to finances to most forms of accomplishment. It’s not just that I want to do things my way, it’s that I want to do them myself.
When my ego is feeling particularly trixty, it assures me this tendency is borne out of concern for others. I don’t want to presume upon them, I tell myself. I’ll just quietly take on the responsibility. When I complete the task or the moment of need passes, I self-satisfyingly reflect on my inner resolve and ability to shield others from the weight of my burdens. Part of this approach to living is a genuine desire to not weigh others down with my struggles: a desire to protect my friends. And there is merit in this. As we mature and see the vastness of life, we become less engrossed with our challenges. I’m learning a valuable part of growing is the ability to thoughtfully expose my struggles and needs to the warmth of my friends’ love. In many ways, it is an act of generosity to reveal a need, because it is a gift of trust to share vulnerability. In sharing my vulnerability, I present people with a chance to practice their gifting. And, by offering them the opportunity to practice their gifting, we are both given a chance to grow as individuals.
Sure I can talk about how wonderful it is to share a need, but truthfully? I’m not good at it at all. Especially in romantic relationships. I once had a partner say, “I feel like if I died tomorrow it, it wouldn’t really affect you. You don’t need me.” It was a jarring thing to be told, especially because it was true. I did care about this person a great deal, but in never acknowledging or contributing my need, the relationship faltered and eventually failed. I was confused because I so desperately didn’t want to be needy. In wanting to be strong and capable, I silently denied us both the opportunity for growth – and an honest chance at the relationship at all.
I find asking for help or expressing a need tricky. I still hear the echoing of youth rally speakers shouting out the importance of not seeking completion in a partner, of being whole in ourselves before seeking romance, of finding all fulfillment in God before even considering investing in a partner. The advice is well intentioned, and probably even true, but what happens when people like me take this concept too literally? I become frigid in my ability to connect with others. After all, we often relate through needs.
It’s been a tough habit to recognize, let alone shake. Offering a need feels like acknowledging a fault or burdening someone, and it’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it. Bit by bit though, with the insight of wise friends, I’m learning that in bearing my need in silence, I’m not shielding loved ones from my burden; I’m shielding myself from the mutuality of relationships. I’m withholding the gift of offering a need. I’m refusing to grow. I killed the possibility of a relationship once because I shunned genuine connection: I didn’t understand the nature of needs.
I’m learning from Dory that sometimes, perhaps even often, we engage best by contributing our need. It seems to me that Dory’s most striking gift is her demonstration of how beautiful it is to be receptive to both hope and help. It’s unclear by the end of the film, of course, who gains the most from their shared adventure. What is clear though is that perhaps Dory contributes the most to her friends when she allows them to contribute to her need.