Ram Dass & Paul Gorman: “Helping Prison”

The following is a series of excerpts from “Helping Prison,” Chapter 5 of How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). The last excerpt, in italics, is one of many illustrative first-person narratives the authors include throughout the book.

So many times each day we support each other informally without ever becoming “helper” or “helped.” Perhaps we’re…holding a coat for someone at a restaurant. But a situation defined is a situation confined. The moment the act requires a definition of the roles involved, we risk entrapment. (122)

How Can I Help? by Ram DassObviously, it’s often appropriate and harmless to meet in roles in which one is helping and another is being helped. People get sick, nurses nurse. Sinks get stopped up, plumbers plumb. These are voluntary contracts between those with immediate needs and others with relevant skills. Were these to remain simply forms we enter into as needed and then let go of lightly, all would be well. It’s the excess baggage we carry into these functional relationships that may end up confining us.

“Helper” and “helped” become states of mind and ways to behave that go way beyond function. Entrapment in these alienates us from one another: a social worker and a juvenile offender just miss; a nurse and a patient seem worlds apart; a priest and a parishioner, so distant, so formal. What otherwise could be a profound and intimate relationship becomes ships passing in the night. In the effort to express compassion, we end up feeling estranged. It’s distressing and puzzling. (124-25)

From earliest childhood many of us are told, “Be good and help.” Helpfulness gets encouraged, often rewarded, because it makes the household function more efficiently. “Help out” becomes a euphemism for obedience or compliance.


Once we come to associate it with rewards, we start to use helping in the service of a wide range of personal motives other than the expression of natural compassion…. We might be seeking to compensate for a lack of self-esteem, for feelings of unworthiness or incompleteness. Need praise? Help out. Or perhaps we’re looking for a form of atonement: there’s guilt to assuage. For many, the ability to aid others can provide a needed sense of power or respectability. Maybe some of us help out as a way of compensating for a deeper sense of helplessness…. Or maybe we’re just plain lonely. Intimacy is what we’re looking for, and it’s often there to be found in a helping relationship.

Rare indeed is the individual for whom the helping act does not arise in part out of some personal motive. To the extent that it does, however, what we are looking for is a role that meets a need…our need. We’re looking to be helpers, not simply to be helpful. A personal agenda leads us to invest in the position, not simply the function. And we invest in the others’ reactions to it as well. (126-27)


Many times we may be alert to the risk of the role. Out of the corner of our eye we catch ourselves acting out our private agendas or see our attachment to certain self-images. But frequently the situation in which we’re working tends to set traps. The dynamics may be subtle. People may need us to play helper. The service organizations so many of us work for have an investment in a collective self-image…. There may be some vague awareness of the problem, but in the end we rarely find “Attachment to Being a Helper” on the agendas of most staff meetings….

Our conditioning, our motives, our training, our attachment to our ideas, the vested interest of organizations…all these, then, can seduce us into believing we’ve got the help, we are the “helpers.” The self-image is very compelling…. But other factors, other needs are at work as well. (133)


The condition of helplessness is one that we tend to push away, deny, or stigmatize as a society and as individuals. Our cultural myths neither encourage us to accept as common helplessness nor teach us how to act upon it. When it’s suddenly thrust upon us, we’re unprepared.

For example, many of us feel resigned to helplessness as citizens. In a society that so inordinately emphasizes power, many of us feel we have little influence over conditions beyond our most immediate circumstances. We may see injustice and neglect or sense the sterility of mass culture…. But we frequently feel impotent to change these conditions. (134)

For those particularly weak and vulnerable, moreover, helplessness becomes a scarlet letter [in our society]…. In many other societies…, the state of helplessness is so common that the experience has to be shared. Helping the poor, Bihar, IndiaThere it is, after all—the poverty, the illness, the homelessness, the hunger, the death. It can’t be denied or pushed to the back of the mind, because it’s simply too prevalent. But as punishing as it can be, people also have a chance to see what strengths can emerge in its face. In the presence of helplessness they can also witness courage, perseverance, patience, acceptance, dignity, and humor.

Here, however, we shun helplessness, and when faced with it, bemoan our fate. We cling to notions of “independence”…as if it were an essential condition of all well-being. The last thing we want is to be robbed of power and placed at the mercy of others…. But in our society the most helpless among us are often consigned to a separate class: ghettos, “golden age” communities, hospitals, wards. They’re put or kept somewhere. The rest of us are freer not to face what they represent. (135)

Then, suddenly, something happens. We’re struck by adversity—and a torrent of reactions…. Suddenly the price of our conditioning becomes all too apparent. We’ve clung to models of ourselves as independent, defining ourselves largely in terms of our power to shape our own destiny. There’s been little encouragement to acknowledge and explore our vulnerability. The weak, the afflicted, the vulnerable, the helpless—it’s always been “them.” Now, suddenly, we’re “them”….

We become so busy trying to find old strengths or new devices to cope with our helplessness that we never really examine the condition itself. We may think we’ll be giving up or giving in. And it’s not surprising that we’re not willing to let go altogether…. Can we imagine a more difficult task? At some level, we’re being called upon to relinquish every model of ourselves that has kept us going until now—it’s a leap into the void, with no ground to push off from. To enter into and explore our helplessness goes against every learned instinct—like turning a car wheel in the direction of a sudden skid. (135-37)


The philosopher Gurdjieff pointed out that if we wish to escape from prison, the first thing we must acknowledge is that we are in prison. Without that acknowledgment, no escape is possible. That is, as long as we feel that these roles are inevitable, functional, or the best we can do, it’s unlikely that we’ll be alert to alternatives. (139)


You walk the halls of this place, and what do you see from room to room? Most people peer in and see this retarded child or that one. They focus on this particular mannerism or that deformity. I do it too. It’s very compelling, that picture.

But one kid flipped me around on that. We were doing language exercises. And for some godforsaken reason I’d chosen the exchange “How are you?”…”I’m doing fine.” We’d go back and forth. Well, he was having quite a hard time of it, slurring out, “Iy dluee fie” or some such. “Let’s try again, really slowly,” I said. “How…are…you?” And he slurred, “Iy dluee fie.” Then he suddenly burst into this wonderful crazy slurry laugh. It was the nuttiest sound we’d ever heard, either of us. He wasn’t doing fine at all. Neither was I. We were doing terribly. It was absurd. We just began to howl.

By Josh Giovo from USA (Little Bugger)

In the midst of that he suddenly gave me this very clear look—the eyes behind the expression. And I had a sudden thought: “My God, he knows more than I’ll ever know about all this. He sees the whole situation.” At which point he just scrunched up his face like a clown and gave me this wonderful wink.

I was just stunned. All I could see was this incredible sense of the humor of things. It was so deep in him. He just had it all in perspective. And he gave that perspective to me.

When I left him, my head was spinning. I walked down the hall and looked into the other rooms, at kids I’d known, or so I’d thought, for months. It was totally new. I don’t quite know how to describe it. In this room I saw courage. In that room I saw joy. Across the hall, patience. In yet another room, such sweetness: a little boy who was so continuously filled with love, people would just—“die,” I was going to say. “Live,” really.

I felt so humbled. I swear I had the impulse to go down on my knees. Here I was, going around giving speech therapy, little lessons, little tips. And what was I receiving back in return? Humanity. Basic humanity. The deepest qualities of a person, deeper than you’d see most anywhere.

What a gift! How much it helped me in my work! In fact, it really changed my life. How often can you say that? (140-42)


And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Image attributions:

“Giving water”
from “How to Help the Poor,” posted by Shalu Sharma on May 19, 2012, on YouBihar: Bihar Online Community, Bihar, India.

“Little Bugger”
by Josh Giovo from USA
CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons.
“One of the funniest kids I’ve met while traveling. Don’t know where he got the lipstick.” (25 January 2008)

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