“Someone asks what time it is. I’m the first to answer. Or at the ballpark when the vendor comes. He passes the hot dog down the long row. I want my hands on it, too.”
-Stanley Elkin, “A Poetics for Bullies”
For the last little while my students had been talking about how hard it felt to find a way to help, given all the old, complicated hurts they saw, and then one student said: “Hang on. If I had a—a nonprofit, whatever—that helped feed people, and you knew my program was doing something, how many of you would come do some work with me?”
There was a little pause, and then everyone held up their hand.
I think everyone I’ve ever met has a fundamental desire to help. That might not be the only want they had: they wanted cheetos, too, maybe, and to be the best, but also to have their hands on the work of supporting someone else. Elkin’s story shows this want from its shadow side: his narrator, “Push the bully,” goes around pushing people he doesn’t know how to help. But he wants to be asked the time, and to answer. He wants to pass along a hotdog to someone hungry.
Maybe one of the reasons I like backpacking is that it makes this work tangible and apparent. There isn’t a place for all of us to sleep, and then someone pitches a tent. We’re thirsty, and someone pumps water from the creek. Our packs our heavy, but in them there’s food for us to eat and clothes to keep us warm. If everyone only carried their own gear, their own food, their own tent, I don’t think I’d like it half as much.
The trick is to take that obvious reminder and bring it back from the mountains. Sometimes that’s easier than others: at my house dishes can sit in the sink until even the ceramic starts to rust somehow, but at yours I kinda like washing the dishes. I hate keeping up with my car’s maintenance, and we should all invest in a different transportation system, but changing a tire (or even the brake pads) with you is pretty neat. I don’t quite know how, but learning feels easier as we work it through together. That’s partly because the work itself is shared and more enjoyable; all the same, if I had to figure out how to change the brake pads, alone, I’d have an easier time if it were to support you than just because I had to. That part might be me. But the larger part, the wish to have your hands on the work of helping—that’s everyone I’ve ever met.