Most of us need help of some kind, at least occasionally, and there are, of course, many different ways of seeking it. In an emergency, we immediately think of sending out an “S.O.S.” Contrary to popular belief, those letters do not stand for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls” – nor, for that matter, do they stand for anything else. They were chosen simply because they make a very easy message to remember and transmit in Morse Code: three dots, then three dashes, followed by three more dots.
One thing that makes me
proud to be a member of civilized humanity is that, more than most other species, we help each other. In fact, civilization may be said to be based on the idea of mutual assistance.
Then there is the voice message “Mayday Mayday Mayday.” This has nothing to do with the holiday celebrating the first day of the month of May. It is in fact an Anglicized version of the French “M’aider!” – “Help Me!” There are many other instances of this type of distorted linguistic adaptation, especially between French and English. One of my favorites, “San Fairy Ann,” dates back to World War I, and was a British soldiers’ mishearing of the French expression, “ça ne fait rien,” meaning “it doesn’t matter.”
One thing that makes me proud to be a member of civilized humanity is that, more than most other species, we help each other. In fact, civilization may be said to be based on the idea of mutual assistance. No doubt this started with small groups, at first of families, then tribes, villages, cities, and states. But what’s essential about being human is that we are also, ideally, humane. If we see a person in serious trouble – although it might be a stranger from a different community – our impulse is to help, if we can. Hence the enduring popularity of the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. A traveler, presumably an Israelite, is the victim of an assault on a road known to be dangerous. Several other travelers see him and pass him by. Then along comes a man from Samaria, whose people are at odds with the Israelites. But he gives the suffering man elaborate help, even taking him to an inn and paying to have him cared for.
That is just a “parable,” but it’s a historical fact that, even in the pre-Roman ancient world, which had cities (mostly Greek) dotted around the Mediterranean, when one city was in trouble, such as from a natural disaster, the others would send aid.
One of my most treasured books is a slim volume published in London by Victor Gollancz in early 1945, while World War II was still raging. Its title is Above All Nations, which was derived from a quotation apparently originated by a nineteenth century Professor of History at Cornell named Goldwin Smith, who had it inscribed on a stone bench which he presented to the University (it is still to be seen there). The full expression reads “ABOVE ALL NATIONS IS HUMANITY.”
I bought a copy of that book in 1952, when I was 18 years old, and living in England. At that time, I was deeply involved in what was called the Peace Movement. My own motivation stemmed from the fact that conscription (of males) for military service was then still the law in the U.K. (as it was in the U.S.) and I was just at draft age. Under a special provision, I registered as a “Conscientious Objector,” whose consequences (which could have included prison) I managed to avoid by emigrating. The book is a collection of items telling of humane acts between enemies in the war (a war I saw as an essentially inhuman activity, on an incredibly large scale). It includes incidents of kindness to Prisoners of War, caring for enemy wounded (sometimes at the risk of one’s own life), even of pilots helping rescue the crews of enemy aircraft they had shot down over the English Channel. It seems remarkable that such a book could have been legally published at a time when the country was still fighting a “total war.”
And yet, there is something in us, particularly in people of certain politically right-wing persuasions, who believe that, as a general rule, we shouldn’t ask for help, and shouldn’t accept it when offered. This form of “rugged independence” is considered a laudable facet of the American character.
Of course, there are many proverbs associated with this idea. One of them used to be quoted by my joke-loving English grandfather. “God helps those who help themselves,” he would say – but would then add, “But God help anyone who helps himself at my table!”