Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Helping is a strange and instructive commodity. It is a realm that seems to come naturally to people and yet when examined with an eye to finding a definition or limit, it is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. In spiritual endeavors, you will hear people speaking of "kindness" and "compassion," but this is just encouraging, superficial, feel-good stuff.

The example that brought this to mind was Michael's visit last week -- a very pleasant get-together with someone I had not previously known. On the surface, he dropped by because he had made contact with a veteran's writing project at a local college. I had made a similar contact, offering to help. So there we were, sitting on the couch, sipping coffee and ostensibly headed towards a writing collaboration, but really, I think, sizing each other up, finding out if either of us thought the connection would actually work. On the surface, it was pleasant and easy. But below the surface it was touching and, in some ways, raw.

Michael told me a little of his background and I reciprocated. And then he told me some of his experience as a Special Forces medic in the highlands of Vietnam. A recent incident had brought things flooding back like the carpet bombing of Cambodia. When Michael got out of the service, he spent 30 years as a physician's assistant at a hospital. So he had helped in the field and he had helped back at home. His wife pointed this out to him and suggested he had not really found or taken the time to care for himself as he had cared for others.

When I find myself in the presence of someone who is hurting or confused -- or perhaps even shredded by circumstances past or present, I have a knee-jerk reaction: To help. Maybe it's just a guy thing, but not only do I want to help, but also a part of me wants that help to have an expected outcome. I'm going to fix it or help fix it or make it better or lighten the load or something. If a pipe is leaking, I grab a pipe wrench, tighten things up and, voila! -- problem solved to my satisfaction.

As a medic and later a physician's assistant, I wouldn't be surprised if Michael had lived through a similar phase -- thinking you could help, doing your best to help and then, like it or not, finding that the expected outcome was not the outcome at all. Perhaps it was better. Perhaps worse. Perhaps it was a success. Perhaps it was an abject failure. Yes, I imagine Michael watched comrades die while he did his absolute best to help, to sustain and prolong life. The experience might shred any man or woman, but in war, there is no time to be shredded. Succeed or fail -- fuck that! get to work! do your best! forget you!

Forget you! Easier said than done. The more you push the cork into that bottle, the more the bottle refuses to stay corked. The only way to forget you is to remember you -- remember the carpet bombings of experience and investigate, be shredded in new and improved ways, to gain control by losing control. There is no analyzing the matter into silence, there is only looking and looking and looking some more ... and being swallowed by what threatens to uproot every building block ever mortared into place. The whole thing is like a scream.

War -- the literal, physical kind -- is relatively easy to approach. Most have not been to war, so there is a comic-book-y distance even when there is heart-felt despair. It's academic. But I think maybe the issue of helping in war and helping during peacetime is not so different. War may be more in-your-face, but a lot of people find the same issue when peace is in-your-face. Carefully-mortared stones shudder when you come to realize that life is saying in little ways and large, "Succeed or fail -- fuck that! get to work! do your best! forget you!" All those carefully-mortared stones of "kindness" and "compassion" -- all those lyrical ways of elevating and labeling your own efforts ... poof! It can provoke that same scream that the filth and blood of war may ignite.

I want to think well of myself. I want to fix it. I want to help. I want to succeed. I want to be noticed and applauded and included in the fraternity and sorority of man.

But the applause is extra and more than that, confounding. Imagining I could help is not accurate ... and the sooner I learn it, the better off I'll be.

There really is help, there really is assistance, there really is compassion and kindness. But how it works is (as much as I dislike the word) mysterious and ineffable.

And it all reminds me of a line my mind once manufactured: "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help."