"Helping people should be nothing special..."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

This morning I stole some time with the June 24 issue of The New Yorker. Readers of this blog know how much I feel I gain each time I open the pages of this magazine, how much sustenance it brings.

Several stories were of interest. Three I've clipped and filed. But for today, here, these are the lines I wish to share. I excerpt them from Larissa MacFarquhar's sympathetic profile of Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist monk who has committed his life to helping the suicidal people of Japan. The piece, "Last Call," explores Japan's suicide culture and landscapes. It shares some of the letters Nemoto has received during his years of listening—and helping. And then it builds to a final, surprising page detailing the years during which Nemoto himself grew ill with five blocked arteries; his life was made even darker by the death of his father.

Through all of this, the suicidal people of Japan continued to call and e-mail Nemoto, continued to ask for his help. At one point, Nemoto grew too unwell to answer. When he could finally explain his silence to his correspondents, this man who had given everything to others was not met with sympathy.

MacFarquhar explains:
When he checked back to see how they'd responded to his announcement, he was shocked. They didn't care that he was sick: they were sick, too, they said; they were in pain, and he had to take care of them.

Lying in the hospital, he spent a week crying. He had spent seven years sacrificing himself, driving himself to the point of a breakdown, nearly to death, trying to help these people, and they didn't care about him at all. What was the point? He knew that if you were suicidal it was difficult to understand other people's problems, but still—he had been talking to some of these people for years, and now here he was dying, and nobody cared.
Ultimately, we learn, Nemoto chooses to help these people anyway. He recognizes the need to "stop thinking of this work as something morally obligatory and freighted with significance. Helping people should be nothing special, like eating, he thought—just something that he did in the course of his life."


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

David Rakoff talks about something similar in Half Empty: the person who has helped others says "I'm dying," and the one who has been helped says, "But what's going to happen to me when you die?"

I find that helping people is not always directly reciprocal. I have been helped by people I could never repay; I've helped people who go on to help others.

But there's a lot to think about in the proposal that "helping people should be nothing special."

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