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The Dubious Samaritan
interview by Kevin Foley
Garret Keizer’s new book has hard questions
for those who want to help

Garret Keizer ’G78 believes help is the most fundamental human act. We are drawn, he says, to reach out and help those in need. This uniquely human lure is the subject of the seven interlocking essays that comprise Keizer’s fifth book, Help. It is also a recurring theme in the author’s own life.

The former high school teacher and Episcopal priest recently left the ministry to write full time. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — help became a crucial subject to him at age 50. “A friend of mine told me that I’ve been writing this book all my life,” he says. But the book, while informed by years of thought and deed, is not purely personal; his beautifully written essays construct a web of references that incorporate everything from the British singer Beth Orton to the Gospels of Jesus to the voices of altruists Keizer admires.

In their explorations of the dilemmas of giving aid, the essays offer no easy answers. (Keizer considered using “The Dubious Samaritan” as his book’s title, giving it instead to one of his chapters.) After all, when we go beyond feeding a baby or tossing a life vest, the complexities of helping multiply. The sick and poor can exploit their helper, or vice versa. An altruist’s noble ideals tarnish as he tries to apply them. An idealist’s hand-wringing about the proper way to act against injustice can be useful — or a justification of inaction. How much help is enough? Too much? What does the story of the Good Samaritan really teach us?

To get at some of these essential questions, Vermont Quarterly’s Kevin Foley sat down with Keizer in a library not far from the author’s Northeast Kingdom home to talk about the dilemmas — and joys — of help.

What is help?
Help is such a basic thing to our experience that it’s very difficult to define the word without using the word in the definition. But for a simple, terse definition: Help is combining one’s agency with another person’s agency in order to achieve something that he or she needs or wants. I think help connotes a certain degree of cooperation. It won’t always be cooperation in equal amounts, but it will involve the participation of two parties. If I said I helped my mother or my father up the stairs, the image you will form is not going to be of me carrying my parents up the stairs. If I’m carrying them up the stairs, I’m not helping them up the stairs, I’m getting them up the stairs.

The other part of the definition is that help is self-evidently an action. It seems to me that someone can sit in front of the television set and see shots of starving children and feel compassion or have something aroused in him or her without any help coming into play. But help is doing something. And for that very reason, it’s almost immediately susceptible to impurity. You can have pure thoughts about something, you can have pure pity for somebody, but once you set about helping that person, then other things enter into it.

Since help is cooperative, what obligation, if any, does someone who has been helped have to the helper?

It can be difficult to receive help; we need a certain amount of humility. A part of that humility is recognizing that as a human being we have a certain entitlement. I was talking to a young man just a couple nights ago who is in need of some help in his life and who expressed grave concerns about the money that it cost. I told him, in my scheme of the world, you’re either giving or taking. We have an obligation to take in times of need for no other reason than we can be strengthened in order to give. …In some ways, even though people reproach themselves for accepting help, I think that accepting help when it is truly needed is an act of social responsibility. As much as to give help when someone needs it. Because if you’re needs aren’t met and you can’t get yourself to a place of agency and self-determination, how can you help anybody else? I think helpers have an obligation to communicate that.

Being helped, people need to realize that they have an entitlement and even an obligation to accept help when they need it. And then I think a person has an obligation to make sure that their own dignity is preserved as much as possible in the context of that helping relationship… and then there’s probably the obligation, the duty, to recognize when one no longer needs to help and when one can give some help. I think that one has to be pretty abject to be incapable of giving help. You can talk to any caregiver, (and hear) about times in his or her life where the patient, the client, supposedly the needy person, was giving them the strength that they needed to get by. One of the most powerful paradoxes of help is that people dying, who could be classified as the most helpless people, can sometimes give us help that no one else can with the knottiest problems we have — how do we face our mortality with any kind of courage and dignity?

A painting of the Good Samaritan is on your book’s cover, and images of the parable flash through almost every chapter. Set the story up for us. What does it show us about help? What does it obscure?
As someone who used to preach on these things, I would say that many of the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospel tend to be given as answers to concrete questions and situations. In the case of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ I say that because I offer a critique... of the glib assumption that what we’ve been given here is a wonderful anecdote that covers all bases. I don’t believe it was ever intended to be that. I think it was intended to be an illustrative answer to a specific question.

Jesus tells the story of a man who was going down a road and who was beaten, robbed and left for dead, and a couple people pass him by, religious people… Then another person comes by, a Samaritan, a member of a group that was despised by Jesus’s community, and he does help, concretely and immediately. The Gospel says he was moved by pity. He helps not so much out of a cold sense of moral duty as he does because he was moved. He washes the man’s wounds, puts him on his beast, takes him to an inn, cares for him all night, leaves money for his care in the morning…

The Samaritan really bothers to look at the man’s condition; as an outcast, he can understand better than some others what it means to be wounded and left for dead. He is not above enlisting the help of others, as he does with the innkeeper. Very often we suffer from a complex that says if we help, it’s all up to us. Except for being on a desert island with one other person, I don’t think it is all up to us. Sometimes the most legitimate form of help we can provide, and I found this many times in my work as a minister and teacher, was getting somebody in touch with the person who can help them more. I also think of the Samaritan as someone who doesn’t seem to be helping because he needs gratitude. And as someone who recognizes his obligation to the person in need, but doesn’t completely forfeit the fact that he has other obligations. He does what he can. Although we may use the story as a yardstick for our own conduct, it’s insufficient, because it’s about help over a very short duration, and where I think help becomes problematic sometimes is over the long term. … in some ways the Samaritan has it easy.

What kinds of questions should we think about if we want to be successful helpers?
There are some things that I think are important to helping and that I think can be extrapolated from some of the discussion I have in the book. I think one of them is certainly being aware of what the other person is trying to accomplish, what the person you would help needs or wants as distinct from what you need or want. There is, I think, within us a very healthy instinct that makes us want to care for people who depend on us. There’s something in us that responds to the dependence of a child or to a person in need. That gets twisted and perverted when we begin to love the dependence for its own sake, as opposed to responding to the person depending on us. So I think we need to be careful about making others dependent and wanting to foster their dependence rather than wanting to help them achieve what they need to achieve or want to achieve. One of the things that is good to bear in mind is that one of the basic needs that people have is to be helpful. So if we are helping someone in such a way that we are restricting their own ability to help, we’re probably not really helping them. I also think that part of helping people is knowing when to let them be on their way. When I was a teacher, there was something glorious, always, about graduation…

What kind of pleasure is appropriate to find in helping?
Any kind of pleasure you experience that arises from the actual helping of the person. I would discourage someone from trying to analyze that too much, because that can lead to a kind of moral hubris. A healthier approach is to say, yeah, there are probably some egotistical reasons why I’m getting delight out of this, but so what? This person is being helped along. Knowing that my altruism is not pure keeps me humble and humane.

What obligation does a request for help place on us?
Every person has to decide for himself or herself, and I think it will depend also on the nature of the request. Does the request pertain to something that I recognize as a valid need? It depends also on what kinds of resources I have. What am I able to give to meet this need? I think when a lot of us excuse ourselves from help is the moment we look at the sum total of a person’s need and say, ‘I could never give all of that, so I won’t give anything.’ I think we have an obligation to consider a request for help if not to oblige it. And then the questions become increasingly more complicated, sometimes — in some cases they’re very simple. If someone is floating by you in a river and says help, you throw out an arm.

At the end of the book, there’s a moment where you describe passing by a bruised woman on the street, a woman who some might think needed some kind of help. Yet you pass by. Why close the book like that — with a decision not to help rather than something helpful?
I don’t mean to be cute by turning the question on its head, but I chose that precisely because it didn’t give closure. There was a real temptation to try to bring the book down with a kind of resounding affirmation that would leave someone closing the book like a million bucks, but it didn’t seem like an honest conclusion, at least for me at this time in life, or for the world and our society at this point. I felt it was truer to the book’s meaning to leave the reader with the sense that the Good Samaritan story is always happening, it is repeating itself, and in each case we are left with the burden of decision. I wanted to show that we’re always faced by the wounded traveler by the side of the road. The story I relate is not as complex as it could have been because the woman was minding her own business. She was not saying, ‘I’ve just been assaulted, help me.’ The question that is more difficult is when someone is actually asking for help. But sometimes it’s people who are most in need who are the least capable of soliciting help. Ultimately, you’ll have to tell yourself what you need to do. Those dilemmas do not go away for most of us.