photo by Sabin
by Kevin Foley
Garret Keizers new book has hard questions
for those who want to help
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 Keizers
fifth book, Help. It is also a recurring theme in the authors
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 Ive 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 books 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 altruists noble ideals tarnish as he tries to apply them.
An idealists 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
To get at some of these essential questions, Vermont Quarterlys
Kevin Foley sat down with Keizer in a library not far from the authors
Northeast Kingdom home to talk about the dilemmas and joys
What is help?
Help is such a basic thing to our experience that its very difficult
to define the word without using the word in the definition. But for a
simple, terse definition: Help is combining ones agency with another
persons agency in order to achieve something that he or she needs
or wants. I think help connotes a certain degree of cooperation. It wont
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 Im carrying them up the stairs, Im not helping
them up the stairs, Im 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, its 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, youre
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.
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 youre needs arent met and you cant 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 theres 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?
painting of the Good Samaritan is on your books 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 weve been given here
is a wonderful anecdote that covers all bases. I dont 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 Jesuss 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 mans
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 mans 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, its all up to us. Except for being on a desert
island with one other person, I dont 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 doesnt seem to be helping because he needs gratitude.
And as someone who recognizes his obligation to the person in need, but
doesnt 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, its insufficient, because its 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
What kinds of questions should we think about if we want to be successful
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. Theres 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,
were 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 Im getting delight out of this, but so what? This person is
being helped along. Knowing that my altruism is not pure keeps me humble
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 persons need and say, I could never give all
of that, so I wont 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 theyre
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, theres 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 dont mean to be cute by turning the question on its head, but
I chose that precisely because it didnt 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 didnt 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 books 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 were 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, Ive
just been assaulted, help me. The question that is more difficult
is when someone is actually asking for help. But sometimes its people
who are most in need who are the least capable of soliciting help. Ultimately,
youll have to tell yourself what you need to do. Those dilemmas
do not go away for most of us.