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Glad to Help?

Vermont author Garret Keizer asks what is means to love your neighbor


Published September 15, 2004 at 6:19 p.m.

I've arrived a little early at Lyndonville State College for my interview with Northeast Kingdom writer Garret Keizer. What I know about him is that he's a middle-aged ex-high school teacher, unpulpited Episcopal priest and author of a new book entitled Help: The Original Human Dilemma. Seeing no one who seems to fit that description, I decide to duck into the ladies' room.

There's a girl in there, presumably a student, sitting cross-legged on the floor inside the first stall and facing sideways, backpack beside her. My first thought is that she's painting or repairing the door, my second that she's committing an act of vandalism. But if that's the case, why isn't she trying to hide? And how am I supposed to read the sheepish little smile she gives me as I move on to the next stall? When I come out, she's still there. But now she's leaning so far forward that her head nearly touches the tiles between her knees.

Is she ill? Upset? Should I ask if she's OK? I'm a stranger at this school, and I've come upon this young woman by chance. Does simply being here make me responsible for her well-being? Would she welcome my assistance or resent my interference? What if she wants to talk, and I'm late for my appointment? Why am I even worrying about this?

Keizer's book-length essay, which hits stores this week, explores just these sorts of questions. Help, he writes, "cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be human as any topic I can think of. We are, almost by definition and certainly from the beginning of our lives, creatures who require a lot of help."

But offering -- and accepting -- assistance can be a sticky matter. What compels us to help others? How do we decide who merits help, and how much help is enough? How responsible are we for the outcomes of our assistance? Drawing on experiences from his own life, as well as examples such as the parable of the good Samaritan and Norman Mailer's championing of convicted felon Jack Abbot, Keizer ponders such issues as the motivation of missionaries, the perils of freelance philanthropy, the sociology of compassion and the coping mechanisms of professional helpers.

Written in a rambling, conversational style, Help is part personal essay, part feature journalism and part Bible study. Keizer's vivid character sketches and anecdotes will likely hit home with anyone who's ever tried to help a client, friend or stranger who seemed beyond redemption -- or possibly not worth the effort.

And in these days of faith-based initiatives and firefighter figurines, Keizer's thoughtful, sometimes surprising comments about social responsibility and the conflicting claims of public and private welfare merit discussion. Those hoping for prescriptions, however, should look elsewhere. Though Help lays out lots of questions, it often leaves readers to figure out the answers for themselves. >> 30A

It's a risky approach. But Keizer's track record suggests readers will stay for the ride. His Harper's Magazine story about noise pollution appears in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002. His article about the implications of the Abu Graib prisoner-abuse photos was published in Mother Jones. Help follows four previous books: two memoirs, a young adult novel and a 2002 collection of essays entitled The Enigma of Anger.

Jay Parini is a poet, author, Middlebury College professor and long-time fan of Keizer's work. "He speaks from a center that seems to me compulsively moral, in a good way," Parini says, "whether he's talking about his relationships with students or the natural world or theological-philosophical issues. There seems to me a quest for moral clarity that's very rare these days."

Bill McKibben, a Middlebury scholar-in-residence and the author most recently of Enough, says Help is "unlike any book I've read in a long time -- morally serious in a powerful way and beautifully written."

By the time this story goes to print, an estimated 1.4 million National Public Radio listeners across the country -- though not in Vermont -- will have heard Keizer on the syndicated, call-in "Diane Rehm Show." More appearances, on radio and in person, are scheduled for Washington, D.C., Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Vermont.

Today's interview is his first, Keizer announces almost as soon as he arrives -- right after he's apologized for making me wait. He's nervous about the upcoming tour, he says, and grateful for the opportunity to practice. And then, in a move I soon recognize as quintessential Keizer, he immediately backs up and reassures, "I didn't mean to suggest that this interview isn't important."

At 51, Keizer is a slight man with a steely crew cut, mustache and goatee. He wears a blue work shirt and comes carrying a briefcase. Although -- or because -- his book is filled with personal revelations about the all-too-human reactions his various acts of assistance have provoked, he's careful to maintain a clear boundary between his public and private lives. He's stipulated that this interview take place at the Lyndonville State Library, where he did much of the research for his book, rather than at his home in nearby Sutton.

Initially soft-spoken and perhaps a bit shy, he quickly warms up to his topic once we've settled into a private conference room. He speaks passionately and expansively, in the same sort of long, looping, complete sentences that mark his writing. It's not hard to picture him holding forth in a classroom, or on a pulpit. It's also easy to imagine him "abiding," as he puts it, one-on-one with a struggling student or a troubled parishioner. In between paragraphs, he takes care to check in with me: to make sure I've understood, to thank me for my question or to invite me to steer him back, should he veer too far off course.

One theme Keizer keeps returning to is religion. These days, using the "G word" is often interpreted as a sign of right-wing fundamentalism. But Keizer, who makes a point in his book of dumping on Repub-licans and defending same-sex marriage, says that having faith is as essential to his identity as is his gender.

He grew up outside Paterson, New Jersey, in a Dutch Reform family. Though attending Sunday school was a given, "I never felt that religion was being crammed down my throat," he says, "which was probably a good thing for my religious development."

What he developed was a knack for simultaneously questioning and believing -- a blend of inquiry and idealism that pervades Help. It was already evident when he was a teenager and the time came to make his confession of faith. Keizer declined, and was sent to the pastor to explain. "I said I thought there were some contradictions in the Bible," he recalls. Rather than chastise him, the minister pointed out a few more inconsistencies he'd missed. "He didn't convince me to stay," Keizer says, "but I left feeling that I wasn't dealing with an enemy."

The move to the Episcopal Church was gradual. When Keizer married his Catholic wife Kathy, the Church of England -- with its uniformity of ritual and diversity of belief -- offered the couple a comfortable common ground. Studying the Anglican poets George Herbert and John Donne as a graduate student at the University of Vermont deepened Keizer's connection to the church. He worked for a while in the Burlington office of what was then called the Vermont Job Service. It was a short walk from there to St. Paul's Cathedral, where he liked listening to the organ. Keizer was eventually confirmed there.

In 1979, the couple moved to Orleans. He taught at Lake Region High School for the next 17 years -- until he realized the job wasn't letting him spend enough time with his daughter Sarah, who was then in the sixth grade. He decided to home-school her. The year after he retired, though, Keizer went back to teach one class gratis: "The Bible as Literature."

Since coming to the King-dom, his religious involvement had deepened. A few years after he arrived, the priest at Keizer's Newport church invited him to give a guest sermon. Not long afterwards, he asked Keizer if he would read the morning service and deliver sermons in Island Pond, which didn't have an Episcopal priest. Although Keizer had never attended seminary or received any theological training, in 1992 he was or-dained under a canon designed to provide indigenous clergy to outlying congregations.

A year ago, Keizer gave up his pulpit to write full-time -- and, it seems, to preserve a certain equilibrium. Echoing an issue he explores in Help, he explains, "As a priest or a teacher, you come into contact with some of the more dysfunctional areas of life and it can make you cynical. I didn't want to stay in the priesthood long enough for that to happen to me."

Keizer reflects on his work as a teacher and a preacher in No Place But Here: A Teacher's Vocation in a Rural Community (1988) and A Dresser of Sycamour: The Finding of a Ministry (1991). His classroom experience also inspired the 2002 novel God of Beer, which is set in a rural Vermont high school.

Working at the job service in Burlington, and especially in

the economically depressed Northeast Kingdom, has brought Keizer into contact with lots of people in desperate circumstances. In Help, he ruminates on what it's been like to put himself out on their behalf -- a mixed bag, in terms of both his enthusiasm and his apparent effectiveness.

To broaden his perspective, Keizer interviews a handful of Northeast Kingdom residents for whom helping is a vocation. A local Peace Corps volunteer talks about continuing to work with Paraguayan villagers even after they'd stolen his clothes. Keizer discusses the case of a hospice doctor in Caledonia County who's been reprimanded for administering a fatal dose.

Keizer also considers copious examples from literature, history and current events. His seven-page bibliography ranges from Dante to Malcolm X to a Vermont Public Radio news report about Burlington's Onion River Co-op. Despite the diversity of his sources, however, Keizer clarifies, "I'm not a scholar and I hope I'm not a preacher."

Some readers may wish he were more preachy -- or at least more explicit about his intentions. One conclusion that does comes through loud and clear is the author's conviction that definite answers not only are elusive, but can do more harm than good. Keizer sees Help as "a conscious act of dissent against some of the assumptions of self-help literature," that is, "that our problems are due to a lack of technical information." If only we knew the correct formula and followed it, the theory goes, our problems would be solved. Unfortunately, human experience is complex, and believing otherwise can cause someone who's making the best of an impossible situation to feel like a failure.

Rather than offering definitive answers, Keizer simultaneously acknowledges how hard it can be to do the right thing, and attests that it's imperative to try. Or, as he puts it, "Here's the darkness. Here's the crap. Here are our limitations. It's worth striving against the darkness anyway."

Although Keizer insists that he's not interested in holding himself up as a model, his gritty and often brutally honest self-scrutiny is reassuring. As Keizer explains it, he wants the reader to say, "I've got some crap to deal with. This guy obviously has some crap to deal with, but across the distance he's saying, 'I'm here, this can be done.'"

Acknowledging "the crap" also gives Keizer's moral stance more clout. To illustrate, he tells me the story of a Buddhist nun who was in the process of burning to death. When a disciple asked, "What is it like?" the nun replied, "It hurts, you imbecile."

Does Keizer worry about how he represents in print people he knows? "I worry about everything," he admits, then adds, "On any given day, I can think of five compelling reasons why I shouldn't write at all." He lists: killing trees; adding to society's saturation of bad ideas; the possibility of hurting people; the potential to mislead people; and "being in a solipsistic career when one might be doing something helpful in the world."

That last consideration -- the worry that one could, and maybe should, be doing more -- is hardly restricted to writers. It's the kind of doubt a person is likely to experience if, say, they walked into a public restroom and saw a young woman sitting on the floor. Some folks would stop to offer assistance. Others would look for ways to justify moving along -- as I did. The desire to limit one's responsibility to others prompts the question that kicks off the parable of the good Samaritan, a story Keizer discusses in detail in Help.

In response to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, a man asks Jesus, "But who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story of a traveler whom robbers strip, beat and leave half dead. A priest and a Levite both pass the man by, but a traveling Samaritan stops. He tends to the man's wounds, then puts him on his animal and takes him to an inn, where he entrusts his care to an innkeeper, leaving behind money for his upkeep and a promise to meet any additional expenses when he returns. After telling the story, Jesus asks which of the three travelers was a neighbor to the wounded man. When the listener answers, "The one who showed him mercy," Jesus tells him, "Go and do likewise."

The Samaritan is clearly the hero, but he's no martyr. He "goes the extra mile," Keizer writes, "but he hardly goes the whole distance." Instead of taking the wounded man on as his personal project, he leaves him in the hands of someone who's in a better position to provide follow-up care. In other words, he takes care of himself as well as the other guy. He's following a commandment to love his neighbor as himself, not instead of himself. Taking care not to destroy yourself in the process of helping someone else is a good rule of thumb for knowing how much help is enough, Keizer believes. But it still leaves room for doubt.

Some circumstances are clearer than others. In one chapter, Keizer imagines the calculation: "I may go into a concentration camp if I hide the person at my door, but he will definitely go if I don't, so his 100 percent overrules my 50." However, Keizer writes, "In situations less dire, the math can become more complicated...Life given for life may actually be an easier sacrifice to make than an afternoon -- and let's make it a sunny afternoon -- wasted on a loser."

We might hold back help to avoid being played for fools. What if the girl in the bathroom is some sort of con artist? "Along with the fight-or-flight re-sponse," Keizer writes, "most of us have what might be called the cynic-or-sucker response to need."

Growing too accustomed to suffering can also wear down compassion. Keizer cites Bruno Bettleheim, who wrote, "A few screams evoke in us deep anxiety and a desire to help. Hours of screaming without end lead us only to wish that the screamer would shut up." What if I helped the girl in the bathroom, and the next day returned to find her right back there again?

What determines how we're likely to act when faced with prolonged need? One factor may be how we see ourselves. Keizer considers the case of Le Cham-bon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in France where 5000-some Jewish refugees were saved from the Holocaust. He speculates that the townspeople may have been moved to courage because of their own history of persecution at the hands of the Catholics. That legacy might have turned into a tradition of anti-Catholic grievance. Instead, they identified with the oppressed.

The villagers were compassionate, but not pushovers. Keizer relates how when a refugee en route to her safe house complained about the rain, her escort replied, "What of my friend...who found the house for you? The rain fell on her. She ran around at night, put herself in danger...and you are saying that you can't walk this distance because of the rain?" Keizer calls the speaker "someone who is well beyond the posture of long-suffering servant of the human race. She is being herself in the process of extending herself." The Cham-bonnais, he concludes, "could give of themselves because they had selves to give."

In a different decade, the caring citizens of Le Chambon might be found forgoing a weekend on the golf course to wield hammers for Habitat for Humanity. One might assume Keizer would laud such altruism, and he does. But he also takes a broader view, and deems it less than ideal. "Bringing about social good shouldn't be left to the good will of individuals," he explains. "When you leave welfare to volunteerism, that's only as good as the best people on their best days. When we make laws and set policies regarding people's welfare, we say we're not thinking about this all this time, but we're going to take our best intentions and make them the norm."

Keizer isn't worried that eliminating the need for charity might deprive us of opportunities for virtue. "There will always be room in utopia for people to help each other," he remarks.

How much help should we provide in the public sphere? "A whole lot more than we do now," Keizer declares. But when it comes to personal opportunities to help others, "There's no hard-and-fast rule," Keizer says. "That's part of the adventure of being alive. On any given day I may encounter a person who will need help and I may screw up and I may not know how much is enough."

But what does he do in such cases? "Pray for help," he replies. He's not being cute. "It's not all up to us," Keizer says. "One thing teaching and being a minister taught me is that if I was asking myself how much was enough, I was too much in isolation. Helpers need helpers." Then he adds, "I think it's supposed to work that way."

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