Like Steve Jobs, I have some little key stories, homilies that I use all the time. One is about my little brother on a camping trip at Lost Lake, which is on the side of Mt.Hood. We stayed in our folding camp trailer near the shore in a mostly undeveloped campground. My brothers discovered the salamanders that lived along the edge of the water and enjoyed playing with them. When it came time to go home, Paul had attached strongly to his mud-puppy with its little hands and wide mouth and he didn’t want to give it up.
My mother explained that Portland is no place for salamanders, but Paul insisted, “He’ll be all right. I’ll keep him safe in my pocket!” Of course, that would kill a salamander. In fact, removing any living creature from its environment might kill it, because living beings are interwoven with their surroundings, adapted to them. Some of those surroundings are created by humans but that only means they are adapted to one kind of person. In the early days of Euro exploration, when sailors insisted on dragging home treasures and treated other human beings like keepsakes, many Native peoples died in the perfectly comfortable London surroundings of the sailors. It wasn’t just psychological — it was physical: failure to adjust to food, climate, germs, uncertainty.
Sebastian Junger, the war correspondent, has a TED talk in which he points out that PTSD may not always be the result of combat — in fact, a small percentage of soldiers see actual killing up close and personal —but rather the consequence of going from a regimented, organized, tightly bonded band-of-brothers where decisions are made for you, to a society that has become confused, torn, alienated, uncertain, judging and hostile. It’s not even particularly admiring of soldiers.
People who “rescue” young women from Asian brothels are disconcerted when the girls want to return to where they knew what was expected of them, were protected in some ways, and had many friendships. Going to another country or starting a small shop was beyond many of them.
“Helping” people depends on the assumptions of the attempt. Many do-gooders do it because they assume they will be admired and the receivers will be grateful. When that doesn’t happen, bitterness can be the result. If the “helping” has lasted long enough for the helpees to get used to it and depend on it, removing that help can be devastating. This is the problem of Indian reservations: what was intended to be a protecting reserve becomes a unique environment sustained by outsiders, a trap. It’s heresy to say so, but maybe reservations — which were not used by conquerers outside the British mindset — are only a delayed cruelty that cripples the People so that they can’t function in the larger society.
Such situations are always triage: some will be able to cope and others will not. Those who survive will be most like the conquerers — either were in the first place or become that way. The problem is often those who are neither here nor there or waffle back and forth, like frequent offenders of criminal law who go in and out of jail or prison, carrying subtle dangers in and out with them. Behaviors, networks, diseases, addictions — all things that were meant to be confined by prison walls.
Less dramatic and more sentimental are the people who come in and out of reservations, partly because of romantic notions about accessing a secret Shangri-la where they will be appreciated at last; partly about the stubborn conviction that spending the summer painting buildings and getting to know old tribal people will do the tribe good; partly as scholars looking for material that can be published to enhance their tenure; and partly by rabble-rousers, usually counter-culture youngsters who bring in radical political notions along with drugs. These are innocent compared to the people who take criminal advantage of any place where laws are complex and overlapping, populations are in disagreement, the larger culture demonizes individuals, corruption dominates all levels of government and some people suffer so intensely that raw survival is their only concern and the help they wish for is death.
So being a helper can be approached from the values of the helper, from the values of the receiver of help, from those who find the situation an opportunity for abuse, or from the larger context of a nation, a planetary given imposed by the environments of locations. It’s three-dimensional chess that is dynamic, because every intervention creates a whole new set of givens. The environmental givens overwhelm everything else: floods and forest fires, earthquakes and volcanoes, drought and famine all challenge the survival of humans, who are — after all — as vulnerable as soft little wet salamanders.
Those who work with minority populations who are suffering — let’s say street people, let’s say delinquent boys — okay, “at risk” or whatever euphemism you want, most of them imposed by helpers from outside — will find that the suffering might not be hunger, numbness, fear of death, loss of family, or whatever other horrors are in Pandora’s box. It’s not enough to supply food, shelter, literacy, or even skills that can be monetized. Down there in the bottom of the box — according to the story — was “hope.” You cannot “give” people hope.
Hope is an emergent capacity of human beings. Emergent means that it comes from the right conditions for it to spontaneously kindle. Those conditions will not always be there even after all the animal needs are met, including a belonging group with a name for itself. Some have been damaged so deeply — looking at it from the helper’s view — that they cannot be “saved.” Unless they go back to the life that they adapted themselves to. The people in that context will consider their return to be salvation.
So this becomes damage to the helper, who feels it as loss, failure. Where is the helper’s hope? It can’t come from praise of those who assumed everyone is pleased to be just like them, prosperous and happy, and who enjoy the reflected participation of praising people they define as saviors. These latter folks will only be damaged by the knowledge that their safety can be removed so easily by an economic Depression, a health challenge, loss of a loved one. This is the point where some kind of belief system, a conviction of what the world means, will be very “helpful.” If you believe Jesus loves you, even when a scroungy, mean, hopeless little humanoid spits on you, that “helps.” If you can’t believe in Jesus, then what?
Hope, the capacity to be helped even by people who ask us to create a new identity, to be “reborn”, can be either a individual emergence or a group emergence, possibly labeled religious or political or even cultural through the arts. I’m transcribing and consolidating old conversations and note how often the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies comes up. Did it do damage by breaking all the rules, just for the pleasure of seeing how brittle they were? Did it start to liberate us, but then scare us into being obedient suits? Did we aim for Jesus and get Trump instead? How do we help ourselves without getting stuffed into someone's pocket?