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Help and the human condition

What can we do to help?
By Victoria Safford
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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In the first weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean last winter, people—who have such a longing for order in this random, beautiful, dangerous, and indifferent cosmos, for the satisfying tidiness of cause and effect—struggled to explain the disaster. Some explanations were geological. Others were blatantly theological: How could God let this happen?

I am sure that wherever God was, whatever God is—if God is—it did not move the earth in vengeance or negligence on December 26, nor make the waters rise to send some kind of awful message. When my congregation joined in raising money for emergency relief, people talked about a different kind of sign: God was surely present in this tragedy, some said, where God always is—in the tenderness between one empty hand reaching out and another reaching toward it. Somehow, between the human need for help and the human capacity to offer it, there came the miracle of ordinary holiness.

John Burdett, a New York Times writer, traveled the coast of Thailand in the days just after the tsunami. People there were eager to speak not so much about the cause but rather about one of the disaster’s consequences. Nam jai, they told him, explained the extraordinary courage of those who died trying to save lives as well as the generosity of survivors who left their own safe homes to search for other people’s loved ones. Nam jai is not particularly heroic. It simply means “consideration from the heart,” an intuitive response to the needs and suffering of others. Its roots are deep in the Buddhist mind.

Unitarian Universalists are sometimes caricatured as people who respond first with consideration from the head. But of course, we struggle from the heart as well and wonder how to offer help and how to ask for it in the face of crises both intimate and global. Two recent books, one from a former priest and one from a philosopher, explore these issues.

In Help: The Original Human Dilemma, Garret Keizer mingles memoir with history and literature to show that while all of us need help, few of us know how to offer it with sufficient humility, courage, or care. The book, made up of separate and sometimes disconnected essays, is peopled with Keizer’s own acquaintances, former parishioners and relatives, characters from books and movies, biblical figures like the Good Samaritan (whose goodness he finds less than absolute), and celebrities like Norman Mailer (who once tried to help a man with disastrous results).

Elizabeth Spelman’s Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World is a more scholarly and compact book, concerned with the forces that drive us to mend what is broken. Using objects as metaphors for human relationships of all kinds, Spelman, a philosophy professor at Smith College, looks at cars and marriages, damaged works of art and broken international treaties, to frame her discussion of the ethics of restoration.

Both books wrestle with questions that are theoretical and practical: What is required of us in the face of suffering, brokenness, and need? With limited power, vision, resources, skill, and time, what ought we do to help, and what is possible? How deep must our caring be for us to hold our heads up as human beings?


Despite the stereotypes about Uni¬tarian Universalists living in our heads, our congregations are filled with people who give their lives to serving and helping repair the broken world, people whose daily vocations are rooted in compassion—teachers and social workers, activists and artists, healers of the body and defenders of the land. As a minister, I’ve come to see that the church exists in part to help these many helpers, to remind them what their calling is, to comfort and encourage them when their help is unacknowledged, underfunded, or unwanted, to lift them up when their efforts or their spirits fail.

One woman in my congregation told me about the experience of visiting a friend with cancer, and how awkward, helpless, and useless she felt at the bedside. What to say? What to do? After many months, it dawned on her what her visits to the hospital were really for: to assuage her own loneliness, to tend her own grief, to find comfort in a familiar source—their friendship. Only then could she relax into her own need and stop trying not to cry, hovering with ice chips and anxious, helpless eyes. To the hospital she began to bring neither help nor helplessness, but presence. There she met her friend on a field now level once again between them, the common ground of sorrow, courage, and human limitation. In time, each friend looked deeply at the other and said, and meant it, “I am so grateful for your help in this,” as they sat together for hours in silence, breathing, being, doing nothing. Nothing more and nothing less was required of either one of them.


Help cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be human as any subject I can think of,” Garret Keizer writes. “We are, almost by definition and certainly from the beginning of our lives, creatures who require a lot of help. No human newborn stands up on shaky legs to suckle its first meal. Nor can we imagine a fully formed adult who could qualify as human without giving some form of help to another. Such a person, neither helpless nor helpful, would be less than a robot, more soulless than a stone.”

Keizer’s essays are provocative and sometimes bitterly cynical. Self-interest, he points out, is always present when we seek to help. Too often, our own need to be needed or recognized can do more harm than good to the intended recipients of our help. Keizer sees this even in himself, recalling times in his ministry when he was asked for money by someone in need—and gave it—but then gave nothing more. His essays lurch fitfully sometimes from one story to the next, from awkward confessional material to overlong detours, such as the strange case of Norman Mailer helping a convicted felon who then committed murder.

The most moving stories in this book are those that offer glimpses of ordinary heroism and the gracious choices of people we ourselves might recognize: the country nurse and doctor in his town who for decades have served their community; the exhausted parent who sings through the night to a child; a midwife in Vermont who believes she helps most during a delivery when she is doing least, empowering her patient to help herself. She describes her calling and the service she provides as a way of being more than doing, a discipline of knowing “when to speak, when to be silent, when to laugh, when to hug, when to be pliant, and when to stand firm.”

In one chapter, Keizer tells the story of the villagers of Le Chambon in southeast France who quietly hid and saved 5,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. Inspired by their pastor and his wife, the villagers risked their lives to shelter desperate families in their attics, basements, and barns, and then found them safe passage, despite frequent searches and interrogations by officials. “If we choose to take the rescuers at their humble word and regard their acts as ‘merely human’,” Keizer writes, “then we are left with the dismal possibility that most of humanity is dysfunctional—not only unwilling to help, but past help itself.”

For Keizer, a former priest and preacher, hell is the place where we stand and admit that we could love the world more, love one another better, care more deeply, help more helpfully, but choose not to.


Elizabeth Spelman focuses not so much on helping as on the fixing of anything breakable. “The Human Being,” she writes, “is a repairing animal, and H. reparans is always and everywhere on call: we, the world we live in, and the objects and relationships we create are by their very nature things that can break, decay, unravel, fall to pieces.”

Repair explores the many ways we try, with varying success, to put things back together—from fixing motorcycles to sewing buttons; from restoring the human spirit to healing the fragile physical container it flickers in; from repairing damaged buildings to exposing wrongs through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Spelman is suspicious of “revisionist” restoration, when individuals or nations try to substitute apologies for transformation, to obliterate past history with contrition. She cites recent examples, such as President Clinton’s apology to the African American men whose syphilis went deliberately untreated during the forty years of the Tuskegee Study. Spelman questions whether such attempts to make amends in fact obscure important legacies of history.

Like Keizer, Spelman maintains that some brokenness is irreparable. She compares ancient architectural ruins to Holocaust survivors’ memories, concluding that some things must stand forever as they are, however frustrating or painful their testimony. Some injuries will always be reminders of loss, she writes, “irreversible, irreplaceable, irredeemable, deprived of the consoling hopefulness of the language of repair.” Sometimes, what’s broken must remain so.

Spelman’s references are ethical but not explicitly religious. Keizer wonders, as Jesus’ disciples did, “What must I do to be saved?” Spelman, however, asks, “What must I do, and what can we do together, to be whole?” She is concerned not with what the Lord requires but with the requirements of human community and the need for clear and honest self-examination whenever we presume to help each other or to mend the delicate fabric of relationship.

Neither Keizer nor Spelman seeks to offer a solution to the “original human dilemma,” as Keizer calls our inescapable interdependence. Despite their many stories and scholarly research, these books can’t tell us how to help or how much is enough. Yet both authors show themselves to be fellow travelers of all of us whose ethical life is yet a work in progress, whose cultivation of nam jai is imperfect, whose greatest joy and sorrow both are bound up with the question of how to be of use.

Readers seeking solid spiritual guidance or moral certainty may be disappointed in these books. But those who would welcome challenging questions about the motivations, efficacy, and depth of human care will find both Repair and Help to be good companions in their journeys. The original human dilemma—our need to help and be helped, to heal and be healed—is also the original possibility. It is an invitation to become as givers and receivers both, the agents of compassion, hope, and grace.

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