Who is my neighbor?

A meditation on the rewards and complications of helping others in need

The much-loved parable of the good Samaritan poses a universal moral dilemma: whether to pass by on the other side, as the priest and the Levite did when they came upon a man beaten by robbers, or to roll up one's sleeves and help.

The answer varies with every situation. But the question, in its myriad forms, never goes away, as Garret Keizer illustrates in "Help," his eloquent meditation on a small word with huge meaning.

"Help cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be human as any subject I can think of," writes Keizer, a former Episcopal priest. We are, he explains, "creatures who require a lot of help."

Although humans share a sense that certain things are required of them to count as good people, many find themselves torn between a sense of obligation and a desire for independence. Even the Samaritan illustrates the complexities.

"The good Samaritan certainly goes the extra mile, but he hardly goes the whole distance," Keizer writes, noting that the Samaritan's commitment lasts less than 24 hours. "When the sun rises on the new day, he moves on," having delegated the injured man's care to the innkeeper.

Two thousand years later, caregiving is not always so easily resolved. As people live longer and have children later, Keizer finds that it is not unusual for his midlife contemporaries "to be doing the college tour at exactly the same time as they do the nursing home tour, each on behalf of someone who is likely to need their help well into the next decade."

And then there are the poor, forever needing more assistance than most people, programs, and nations are able - or willing - to give. When the subject turns to poverty, Keizer grows impassioned. "If the poor truly are with us always, as the Bible says, then we must always be talking about them," he insists. "Whom should we help if not the poor?"

Yet helping a group that numbered 34 million Americans in 2002 is fraught with problems. Keizer laments that even the most humane gestures on their behalf accentuate their dehumanization.

And sometimes help, however well-intentioned, backfires. Keizer offers the infamous case of Jack Abbott, a convicted killer who engaged in a four-year correspondence from prison with novelist Norman Mailer. After playing a small role in getting Abbott paroled in 1981, Mailer took him home with him. Six weeks later, Abbott fatally stabbed an unarmed waiter. So much for Mailer's altruism.

In other circumstances, humane gestures serve as inspiration. Keizer recounts the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a village in the southeast of France whose residents saved an estimated 5,000 Jews, many of them children, from the Nazis. Locals risked their lives to shelter strangers.

Not everyone wants help, of course. The reclusive Thoreau speaks for others when he writes, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life."

Whatever the rewards in giving to others, there can be frustrations, too. "The people we love most are often the very people we find it most difficult to help," Keizer observes. For some recipients, accepting help graciously can be harder than giving it graciously. Another challenge looms as well: "When help is most urgently needed, it usually isn't asked for. Often it can't be asked for."

Even terrible acts show the incalculable value of reaching out to others. Keizer tells of a Vermont doctor and his wife, a nurse, who visited a local elementary school the day after 9/11.

"We talked about people in a bad and scary time who were doing something good," the wife recalled. "Who was helping? Who was taking care? It's important to paint the helpers with as big a brush as you paint the destroyers."

Although Keizer emphasizes that the world has been richly blessed by single people, he lauds marriage as "the best source, sustenance, and simile for what I know about help." The marital union involves "love moving between two partners, and from them to the world." On the subject of love, he adds, "God is love. It would seem that love, whether human or divine, is help."

A helping hand, an outstretched arm, a loving heart, a generous spirit - these tangible and intangible expressions of caring remain essential in a world yearning for connection and comfort. As Keizer threads his way through this wide-ranging and original book, weaving a rich tapestry of ideas, he offers no pat solutions to the complex problems he discusses. But of one thing he is sure. "We are in this world to help each other," he states. "Human beings have an intrinsic need to help."

Returning to the parable that runs as a leitmotif through the book, he offers this humbling perspective: "The central question is not whether the Samaritan's actions are simply what anyone else would do. The central question is always what you will do."

Marilyn Gardner writes about family issues for the Monitor.

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