Half Magic: The Power Of Half-Way and The Power of Help

No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you.
— Althea Gibson

It's hard to imagine that sometimes a half can be more powerful than a whole.

One of my favorite books when I was young was a book called Half Magic where one of the kids finds a coin that grants the finder magic wishes—with a twist. When you wish on this coin you only get half of the wish. If you wish to be by the ocean, you end up in the desert, with only the sand, and no sea. So getting your wish took some thinking—how do I wish for twice what I want in such a way as to get my wish? What do I need to bring to my wish to get what I want?

And then magically, two days ago a TED talk showed up in my inbox—about a Chilean architect named Alejandro Aravena, who was working to solve a tough problem of building affordable urban housing. And he solved the problem by just building half of the house. He spoke with and worked with the communities he was going to serve and decided that rather than trying to be frugal by building a whole smaller structure, he would use the resources to build half of a larger structure and let the families and communities themselves finish the other half. He could build more houses, involve the communities and the houses would be larger and would create more sustainable communities. The solution was in the collaboration. The solution was in knowing that half could be whole. Or that half could be even bigger than whole.

This radical notion of problem solving—the idea that you could just solve half seems to be just the reminder and medicine I need this week. I have always had trouble asking for help. For most of my life I believed that if I went to someone for help I needed to show up with the solution already formulated. I had no idea that you could show up with the problem. That showing up with the problem was the whole point of asking for help. I thought you had to have the answer. Which meant I didn’t go to people for help so much as I went for approval of my plan. And seeking approval is not the same thing as asking for help.

If you go with the solution—you don’t have the chance for another brain or another heart to contribute or edit. When you go with the solution you don’t get a chance to understand your problem in a new way or a different way. You don’t really get to learn. And you certainly don’t get to learn that relationships can make the solutions bigger than you imagined. That half can actually help you learn and grow.

In one of my art classes in middle school we were instructed to find magazine picture of faces and cut the pictures so that you had a half of a face. You would glue the picture into a sketch book and then draw the other half of the face: the exercise of finishing the second half helped you see, helped you learn about proportion—it helped you start half-way to the end. You borrowed some momentum and lines from the actual picture. Half way was an instructor that was always available to you.

And sometimes I use half way as the solution when I can’t seem to rally my energy for the whole thing. For example, when I can’t seem to get motivated to exercise, I tell myself to just get dressed for a walk. I do the first half—getting ready—and often, once I am dressed, I can muster the energy to actually go for the walk. Or, as Tamar Adler in the Everlasting Meal recommends—when you are just too exhausted or frazzled to know exactly what to make for dinner, you fill a pot with water and  set it to boil, or you chop an onion and start it frying and the other part of the meal will start to build itself.

So sometimes I can do half-- but bringing my half—my problem—to someone else is still a big learning curve and not my first instinct. Part of it, I think, is that half is kind of messy—if you have half of your house finished—then you can see all the wiring, all the plumbing and sawdust. When you have half of an essay finished—your lines of thinking—all of them are there for review.

But I forget, like everyone else, that half way can be a big deal. I mean, the peak of Mt. Everest is really only half of the climb—the bottom is the finish. So half way IS an accomplishment—and a place where you can look around and get perspective. And I forget that our relational limbic brains were designed to connect to other brains in order to solve problems—from information to relaxation. Our brains actually need other brains to be at their best. And mostly I forget that everything I have done that I am really proud of—I have only really brought at the most half to any piece of it. I ran meditation groups for my dissertation, but the programs and the boys had to show up and participate. I wrote my dissertation, but a friend did such a great job editing that not only did I get a dissertation out of it, but her editing and comments also taught me to write along the way.

The work I do with community leaders is only a methodology and some practices—the community leaders bring their wisdom and energy and create solutions. I only bring half. And really, as a wise person told me this week, in most of what we do, we can barely even claim half—there is so much effort brought to bear on any one moment. Tonight’s dinner of roasted squash was planted by people, and harvested by people and transported by people and stocked by people and sold by people. And I'm not even considering the pots and pans and the stove and the energy. I imagine making the squash alone and really it was a giant collective effort. And that’s only a fraction of the work and the dinner itself. It’s so easy to feel like I have to do everything myself, or I am actually doing everything myself and it is such an illusion. We don’t do everything ourselves—we live in an interconnected web—where as Althea Gibson reminds us, that no matter what accomplishments we make, somebody helped us. Half magic is always happening. Bring whatever you have and then go ahead. Wish twice. 

© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelze