As we continue to struggle with the pandemic, the words I repeatedly hear my clients use to describe their day-to-day are “chaotic” and “overwhelming.” Many of the country’s macro-level systems such as public health and financial safety nets have fallen short for so many Americans in the era of COVID-19, placing tremendous pressure on micro-level support systems like family and friends to compensate. 

In fact, Prudential’s 2020 Financial Wellness Census identified the federal government (32%) and family and friends (28%) as the two most common sources of financial assistance in times of crisis. When these sources are overburdened, depleted, or unavailable, where can we look to find relief? 

Americans have taken to resurrecting the support structures in the middle, or “meso-level” to create the resources individuals and families so desperately need. This has surfaced in a variety of ways. For instance, without reliable in-person school or child care options, parents are forming babysitting co-ops and orchestrating learning pods. Neighbors are communicating on WhatsApp to better understand and mobilize around each other’s physical needs. 

This “take a penny, leave a penny” ethos may be uncomfortable for some American middle-class families who haven’t had to rely on many community-based systems in the past. There’s a reason for that. Throughout American history, we’ve idealized the self-sufficient individual and bootstrapping hero. Simply put, asking for help has often become anathema, relegated to a private domain or professional transaction. Many of us edit our public self to only show the most capable and strongest features. As a result, people’s interdependence, and our own reliance on our communities, have become invisible. Not until this current crisis opened the doors and lifted the curtains to how intertwined we are, including our health and finances, did we feel the urgency to connect. Suddenly, our private needs have become public needs, reminding us of our commonwealth. 

As we shift our own visibility, we can also become more aware of those in need who may not raise their hand for help. Let’s call this being a “spotter.” A friend of mine recently shared that her church has stopped all in-person activities as a result of the pandemic. Knowing the challenges (mental, physical, and spiritual) that this would cause to many in her congregation, they’ve formed pods to check in, observe, and notice when a need may not be being expressed. Sometimes simply being known and noticed is what a community member needs. 

Of course, in a situation of so much disruption and loss, it can feel daunting to open up more to the needs of others. This is why it’s important to reconceptualize our framework of help. Adopting a mutual aid model, we release ourselves from the pressure of being the person who has to always provide the solution. It becomes the community’s role. In this model, individuals stop holding back for fear of failure. They learn that it’s OK to both ask and look for help. Reaching out to others in the community becomes routine, even if we’re not yet sure how we can help. 

The world we had grown accustomed to has seismically shifted in a matter of months. We’ve been reminded that we can’t solely rely on institutions to take care of us, and yet we individuals can’t do it alone either. Instead, let’s meet in the middle and find our collective ground.