A couple of weeks ago, I posted a link on Facebook to a story on the high cost of higher education and student debt. Someone responded that he had worked his way through school so had no sympathy with struggling students today. I was not surprised. Often, the people unwilling to help those in need pulled themselves from the same poverty. Their sympathy is guarded and their expectations measured on a balance scale.
They made it, after all, on their own (or so they believe)… so why can’t others? Why should others get more than they got?
But let me move on:
One of the greatest and simplest expressions of the dangers of earthly ambition, greed and debt that I know of is Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (the link is to a David Grisman and Jerry Garcia version) which ends with these lines:
No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest
And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed
And muttered underneath his breath
“Nothing is revealed”
Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.
Many years ago, when I was teaching at Scattergood School, a Quaker boarding school in Iowa, I played the song (Dylan’s original version) for breakfast reflection after a day of rancorous disagreement within the community. All of us, I think, were calmed and a little abashed–and we looked at each other with a little more sympathy and compassion, our angers abating in recognition one of the other without any concern for balance. I think we all heard the distinction between the ‘little neighbor boy’ who asked for nothing and revealed nothing and Judas Priest, who said to Frankie Lee, on giving him money early in the song, “my loss will be your gain,” seeing things in a win-loss paradigm. He expects, as Frankie Lee finds, the favor to be returned.
On Tuesday, one of my best friends, a colleague in the English department at New York City College of Technology, died suddenly. He was to join us today, for our Thanksgiving feast. Charles Hirsch was compassionate, one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known, easily hurt but always forgiving, never imposing his own standards, never judging, but always striving himself. Charles struggled at times, struggled mightily, but he never used his own travails as an excuse for not reaching out to help others. Even when things were difficult for him, he always smiled, and always extended a hand. Never did he use the excuse of the weight of his own load to refuse to help with that of another.
In a way, Charles was that ‘little neighbor boy.’ He helped, but never expected anything, not even gratitude, in return. In addition, and unlike me, he was able to let hurts slide away, never holding grudges, always able to treat even those who had slighted him with love and compassion. He often frustrated me: We would blow off steam to each other, but I would always retain pressure enough to power retribution. He would not, and I never understood how he could be so nice to those who had treated him shabbily… no, I understood, but realized I hadn’t the strength of character to do as he did. Perhaps I am still too mired in the tit-for-tat of childish interactions to manage his adult reaction.
As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Charles had taken at least one course from the poet John Berryman. We often spoke of Berryman, whose work, for a variety of reasons, held resonances for both of us. I generally returned to “The Ball Poem,” which I read to my classes almost every time I teach a literature course. It describes a little boy whose ball bounces into the water and whose expression tells of that first understanding of loss each of us experiences. It ends with these lines:
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . .I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.
Nor was Charles just a little boy. A real neighbor, he was, yes. But, like Berryman’s narrator, he had the expansive understanding and compassion that made him, unlike so many of us today who judge only by possessions and gain and loss, fully adult.
I am thankful that I knew him.