Friday, August 7, 2009

just one person

I ran across this while cleaning up the blog and felt as if, perhaps, I had helped myself. :)

Once upon a time, a lot of years ago, when I was a reporter and was sniffing around the spiritual-life fire hydrant, I interviewed a Zen Buddhist monk at a small temple back in some nearby hills. Professionally, I wanted to do a news story. Personally, things were less simple or perhaps more so.

The small house -- pretty close to being a shanty -- was set on an overgrown hillside. It was in need of a lot of repair, and the monk, who was thin and sinewy, was making them.

In the course of the interview, I asked the questions that might have been expected of a news story -- when did he start, how many people came, where did the impetus to site a temple in western Massachusetts arise, what was his background, how much did it cost, etc. And in among those questions, I asked him what he hoped to accomplish. He looked thoughtful and then replied approximately, "If I can help just one person...." and his voice trailed off.

It was the kind of response at which others can nod with a sort of agreement and satisfaction. Helping just one person sounds like a modest goal and monks are 'supposed' to be modest. Helping is nice and monks are 'supposed' to be nice. The response was one that dovetailed with what those inclined to suppose wanted or even demanded to hear. It was, perhaps, an inspiration, and inspiration feels good.

And, with or without the robes and shaved head, the monk was a nice fellow.

The other day, I ran across a thank you note directed to me from someone on the Internet. It was thoughtful and kind, and for some reason, I found it touching. Words that I had written had 'helped' and this man wanted to say thank you. Usually, I am not very good at receiving thanks of that sort. My ordinary habit -- not a very good one -- is to parry. In this case, the words, whether understood or misunderstood, got through and I realized that "if I can help just one person" was something I took quite seriously. It is something I can honestly credit, something I seem to be set up to do in some instances, something I like.

But it's somehow tricky as well. Altruism makes my teeth itch. But finding a way to "wish you what you wish," to suggest another way of seeing things -- your way, but a 'new' way -- yes, I'll take the hit for that. But am I different from anyone else? Nope ... and that's not modesty.

Somehow that note forced me to admit that I like 'helping' even if, simultaneously, it is not possible to help. There are circumstances and those circumstances are just what cannot be helped. The important part is just to make peace with the circumstances.

My circumstances seem to include: 1. I take 'helping' just once person seriously; 2. I write words even as I may despair of the belief that others (or even I) may invest them with. Imagine that ... much of my life spent writing and I wake up one morning to the appropriate accusation, "He's a writer." Not a famous writer or a good writer or a helpful writer ... just a writer. Why is this a surprise? I don't know, but somehow it is.

It can't be helped.