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In a book the San Francisco Chronicle called "unclassifiably wise" and a "masterpiece," noted Harper?s essayist Garret Keizer explores the paradox that we are human only by helping others- and all too human when we try to help.
It is the primal cry, the first word in a want ad, the last word on the tool bar of a computer screen. A song by the Beatles, a prayer to the gods, the reason Uncle Sam is pointing at you. What we get by with a little of, what we could use a bit more of, ...
In a book the San Francisco Chronicle called "unclassifiably wise" and a "masterpiece," noted Harper′s essayist Garret Keizer explores the paradox that we are human only by helping others- and all too human when we try to help.
It is the primal cry, the first word in a want ad, the last word on the tool bar of a computer screen. A song by the Beatles, a prayer to the gods, the reason Uncle Sam is pointing at you. What we get by with a little of, what we could use a bit more of, what we were only trying to do when we were so grievously misunderstood. What we′ll be perfectly fine without, thank you very much.
It makes us human. It can make us suffer. It can make us insufferable. It can make all the difference in the world. It can fall short.
"Help is like the swinging door of human experience: ′I can help!′ we exclaim and go toddling into the sunshine; ′I was no help at all,′ we mutter and go shuffling to our graves. I′m betting that the story can be happier than that . . . but I have a clearer idea now than I once did of what I′m betting against."
In his new book, Help, Garret Keizer raises the questions we ask everyday and in every relationship that matters to us. What does it mean to help? When does our help amount to hindrance? When are we getting less help-or more-than we actually want? When are we kidding ourselves in the name of helping (or of refusing to "enable") someone else?
Drawing from history, literature, firsthand interviews, and personal anecdotes, Help invites us to ponder what is at stake whenever one human being tries to assist another. From the biblical Good Samaritan to present day humanitarians, from heroic sacrifices in times of political oppression to nagging dilemmas in times of ordinary stress, Garret Keizer takes us on a journey that is at once far-ranging and never far from where we live. He reminds us that in our perpetual need for help, and in our frequent perplexities over how and when to give it, we are not alone.
|1||The Dark Wood||1|
|2||The Dubious Samaritan||19|
|3||The Dream We No Longer Admit||53|
|4||Those Who Have Hands||99|
|5||The Domestic Samaritan||149|
|6||The Descent Into Hell||191|
|7||A Better Plan Than This||233|
The trooper was calling long-distance from Arizona to find out what I knew about Kathy B. besides her name, the Christian half of which happened to be the same as my wife's. I registered the similarity as soon as he said the words: Kathy is dead. I hated the sound of that, though I had heard something like it once before. Years ago, when Kathy B. was living nearby and slowly draining the reservoirs of my goodwill, she had called the office at the school where I taught and asked that I be paged because of "an emergency."
"Who is this?" the secretary had demanded.
But it had not been my Kathy, and it had not been an emergency, though I might well have had an accident or a heart attack as I dashed out of my classroom and down the crowded hall to the phone.
I told the trooper I did not know much. There was a couple over in Island Pond with whom Kathy had sometimes stayed during her sojourns in northeastern Vermont; the trooper said he had already found their names after searching Kathy's campsite. It was they who had recommended that he call me. Yes, I was a minister, I verified, but only part-time, and I had never really been her minister. I had found her sitting on the church lawn one Sunday morning (gaunt and toothless, at first glance neither male nor female but with an ascetic's preternatural strength in her grip and in her stride) and had tried to help her for a few months thereafter. In fact, I was one of those who had helped her arrange the trip to Arizona. She had seldom attended my church.
"I just tried to help," I said.
If the trooper was thinking what I was thinking, that apparently my help had not been enough, his voice did not betray him. In fact, he sounded ready to credit me with more grief than I could feel when he told me that Kathy B. had taken her own life.
Two lines from two songs keep playing in my head these days, though it has been a while since either was a regular on my stereo. The one is from the folksinger Joni Mitchell, and it goes: "If you can't find your goodness 'cause you've lost your heart." The other, from an Australian group called Paul Kelly and the Messengers, is much like it. "I lost my tenderness," Kelly says. Then he adds, "I took bad care of this."
It would make a neat transition to say "me too," but the truth is that I have not lost my heart or my tenderness as nearly as I can tell and so far as people tell me. Not yet. I also have not lost my hair or any of my teeth, which another singer, James Brown, claims are the main things a man needs to hang on to. (I assume that is especially true if the man is James Brown.) But I have reached that age when things do start to fall off or out of a person: hair, teeth, muscle tone, and perhaps some of the altruistic energy of youth.
A quip often attributed to Winston Churchill asserts that a man who isn't a socialist when he's young has no heart, and a man who isn't a conservative when he's old has no brains. I would sooner lose my hair than allow myself to become a conservative (or brainless) -- but I am extraordinarily fond of that quote, and I take it there must be a good reason. It may be the same reason I keep imagining the Mitchell line and the Kelly line playing over and over like a dire musical omen -- and the same reason too that I heard the trooper's announcement with a sense of mounting resistance. I am too old, I said to myself, to be surprised by this news and too old to feel implicated by it. I am also too old to feel guilty for not feeling sadder about it. I did what I could to help her. I saw this coming.
And yet I was apparently not too old to wish, and to say that I wished -- in regard to the trooper's search for any next of kin -- "that I could be of more help." And even though Kathy B. was dead now, I still prayed that God would help her.
Help is what this book is about. You will notice that I am also at the age when one has little patience for a long prelude. Along with that impatience comes a sense, hitherto rare in my life, of limited possibilities. At twenty-five, we feel that we will always be able to get to certain things at some later date; when we are fifty even a bookcase starts to look like a graveyard. If I start right now, and read twenty-five pages every day ... But of course we do not start right now, and even if we did, we would be unlikely to keep the resolution. We know more vividly than ever before that we are going to have to make deliberate, fatal choices about which books we are going to read and, in a case like mine, which we will try to write.
For various reasons that will become clearer as we go on, I have decided that one of the things I want most to read and write about is what it means to help someone -- and what it means not to help someone. They go together, of course, because, as most people discover sooner or later, you can wind up not helping even when you wanted to help and vice versa. Let Kathy B. stand as my Exhibit A.
I should say at the outset that I am not writing primarily about altruism ...Help
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