In era of self-help manuals, a welcome book on helping others

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How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 243 pp. $5.95. Paper. There are lots of self-help and self-improvement books on the market. This is not one of them. This is a book on helping others, and for that reason, it's a welcome rarity.

The writers, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, bring what they call a ``bias'' to the work. Mr. Dass was trained in psychology, Mr. Gorman in philosophy. Ram Dass had experience as a therapist, Paul Gorman in politics. These disparate fields provide the basis for an extraordinary book on service and social action.

From simple gestures for friends to organized efforts for victims of drugs, rape, and catastrophe, the authors want to know what really works. Ram Dass and Gorman understand their title to be a question of the heart, but the inquiry they undertook was painstaking and practical. They talked to people in all areas of service and the fresh, fast-reading text is shot through with accounts they gathered from the helpers and the helped: nurses and social workers, clowns and convicts, policemen and peace marchers, all have their very moving say.

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The book also draws on religious and philosophical sources that are as wide-ranging as the writers' backgrounds. While the quotations are primarily from Eastern philosophical sources, among them can be found poetry by W. H. Auden and a statement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The result is a kind of mongrel mix, in which a practiced eye can spot strains of thought: Dass and Gorman seem to understand that spiritual discipline is essential to effective help, but they can't seem to bring themselves to pick one. It doesn't seem important to them: the desire to help and the strength that desire calls forth may spring from a deeper source than human analytics.

One man tells of his work in a hostage recovery system in New York City. He deals with those emergency situations when people threaten suicide or hold others hostage. He says:

``I've had special training, of course, but that becomes a part of you, and it's only a part of what you're calling on. You have to be steady and quiet inside. You have to have a foundation of belief in the absolute value and beauty of life. You can't get too caught up in it all. You step back, get as much of the picture as possible, and you play it moment by moment. That's what I've learned from hundreds of these situations.''

The wisdom of ``stepping back'' is one of the things we learn from this book on helping.

It will be asked, will ``How Can I Help?'' help? Gorman and Dass sort through the attitudes that surface when help is needed. And that sifting does help us figure out what people really need, and how they might get it. But more important, the book gives well-deserved encouragement to the seasoned worker. It is rich, stimulating, and heartening.

Carol Deslauriers Cieri is on the Monitor's national news staff.

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