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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton has recently read a book that examines what it means to lend a helping hand.

(SLAYTON) Garrett Keizer’s new book, entitled “Help, the Original Human Dilemma,” bravely and intelligently attempts to puzzle out the difficulties involved in that profound act – one human being helping another.

For help, when you get right down to it, is a paradox. It seems like the simplest thing in the world: Someone is in need; you assist them. But help is hardly ever that simple. Help too much and you’re a meddler, a bleeding heart. Help too little and you’re a Scrooge. Help the wrong person – a Hitler, say – and you’re a villain. Help someone self-destruct with drugs or booze and you’re an enabler.

Take the enormous disaster of the tsunami that swept the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas. Everyone who heard about it wanted to help. But what’s the best way when relief agencies are clogged with dollars and supplies, but can’t deliver either to the needy? It’s amazing how quickly something that seems so simple can become so complex. Help is a paradox, as anyone who’s actually tried to offer help can attest.

Garrett Keizer, author of “Help, the Original Human Dilemma”, is a person who has tried to offer help – probably much more often than the average person. In addition to being a writer, Keizer is, or has been, an Episcopal minister in Island Pond and a high school teacher in Orleans, both professions that have helping as an essential part of the job description.

And Keizer takes that responsibility seriously. He has been called on to minister to the poor and the mentally ill, the downtrodden, fiercely independent have-nots of backwoods northern Vermont and to his own relatives. He describes several instances where he devoted hours, days and more to giving help that was rebuffed or that he felt was ultimately useless.

He tries to understand what it means to help someone – and not to help someone. Keizer tells us, “Because, as most people discover sooner or later, you can wind up not helping even when you wanted to help – and vice versa.” Using examples drawn from both the New and Old Testaments – the Good Samaritan, the Book of Job and many others – Keizer explores literature and history, wrestling with the paradoxes of helping as vigorously as Jacob ever wrestled with his angel.

He offers us no easy answers, but probes so deeply into his subject that, several times in this book-length essay, he touches close to the core of what it means to be an individual and a caring social animal, both at the same time. “Give me a statement about help that purports to be definitive and I will give you a situation that makes it sound ridiculous,” he declares near the end of his book.

Anyone who has tried to help another person and failed will find this book challenging, rewarding reading, and will agree with Keizer when he declares: “Help cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be human as any subject I can think of.”

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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