I was at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention when the El Paso and Dayton shootings happened. Conventions and film festivals are strange bubbles, separated from the rest of the world, but when something like this happens, the bubble is penetrated. It can be disorienting to go from reading the news on your phone to walking through the dealer’s room and marveling at the cosplayers – there’s real emotional whiplash happening.
But maybe there’s nowhere I’d rather be when two such overwhelming examples of reckless hate are unleashed on the world. There’s no fandom like Star Trek fandom; there’s a positivity and a kindness inherent in the most hardcore of these people. I know that in the year 2019 all fandoms are suspect, and there are certainly elements of Trek fandom who are not great, but the core of this group reminds me of Midwesterners – polite, friendly, deeply uncool. And I don’t say deeply uncool as some kind of a putdown; the lack of pose or ironic distance is part of the charm. No matter how hard CBS or JJ Abrams have tried, nobody has ever, ever been able to make Star Trek cool.
That uncoolness comes partially from Star Trek’s hopeful ethos. It isn’t scummy and rough like Star Wars and it isn’t pessimistic like so many popular dystopias. Star Trek is a fantasy that tells us despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity will turn out pretty okay. Everywhere you look at this convention there’s an optimistic view of the future wherein humans, valuing knowledge and peace above all else, thrive among the stars.
That uncoolness comes through in one of my favorite rarely quoted Star Trek lines. I saw the line printed on a banner at Chase Masterson’s Pop Culture Hero booth, which was promoting her “Be Kind” campaign. Masterson is a Deep Space Nine actor (Leeta!) who has been very active in anti-bullying, and “Be Kind” is the heart of her activism.
Anyway, at the booth was this banner, and on the banner was this quote from the classic episode City on the Edge of Forever:
“Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”
That’s Captain Kirk talking to Edith Keeler in 1930s New York City. She works with the homeless during the Depression, and a time-traveling Kirk sees her give a sermon at her soup kitchen that moves him – so much so that he falls in love with her, in fact.
That novelist isn’t from Earth, but rather from a star in Orion’s Belt, but by the chronology he’s out there right now, gearing up to write his masterpiece, which will be published in the 2030s. He’s thinking about “Let me help.”
The banner stopped me in my tracks, and the message moved me deeply. More than the “Be Kind” branding. It stirred up a lot of nerdy thoughts (Kirk’s love of this quote certainly speaks to his pro-interventionist actions), but beyond that it gave me so much comfort.
When terrible things happen one of the worst aspects is the helplessness we all feel. Dozens of people dead, and what can we do? We are filled with the existential despair that not only can we do nothing for those people, there will likely be more killed – in days? Weeks? Hours? – and there’s nothing we will be able to do for them.
This helplessness is deadly. It creates anxiety and depression, and it breeds anger. It’s clear that we are living in a miasma of hopelessness, frustration and cruelty, and the helplessness we feel at events like this only feeds the miasma. It grows and grows. It festers and it only continues to contribute to the ugliness in which we’re all living.
“Let me help” is the solution. It’s what breaks the soul-sucking spell of the hopelessness. It’s what transforms uselessness into action. In the Star Trek quote it seems as though the novelist is advocating “Let me help” as words that you say to others, but I think they’re also words you say to yourself. They’re a mantra to repeat when confronted with suffering or hardship – we can look at the situation and say “Let me help” as a guiding intention.
But how to help? It’s so hard to know. It’s so hard to see how to be of use. I’m not here to tell you how to do it, because there is no one way. Maybe your way of helping is to get involved politically, maybe it’s to work with victims, maybe it’s to work with the kind of people who end up becoming shooters. Maybe it’s to advocate for environmental regulations, maybe it’s to clean up your local beach, maybe it’s to teach children to respect the Earth. Maybe it’s to join a group fighting for economic equality, maybe it’s to be of service to people most impacted by that inequality. Maybe it’s each of these things at different times. Maybe it’s simply creating a positive experience and environment for others, to be aware of the burdens we’re all carrying and being there to lighten the load whenever possible, to make the lives of all people who cross your path just a little bit better.
It’s okay to not know how to help. The important thing is to be open to it, and more than that, to have it as your guiding principle. If we approach any situation with the intention of helping, we will find that the ways to help will make themselves clear to us.
There’s a prayer I really like. I know, I know, but hear me out on this one. It’s known as the Prayer of Saint Francis, but there’s no indication that Saint Francis had anything to do with it. The first example of it anyone can find is in 1912, so it’s fairly modern. At any rate, whatever its providence, its message is powerful.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
There’s God stuff in here, and I know that for some people that’s a dealbreaker. If there’s any way to see past the God stuff I encourage you to try, because I find this prayer incredibly powerful as writing. I can’t speak to its power as a prayer, and since I don’t believe there’s a Supreme Being answering prayers, I have my doubts in general. But as a piece of writing that helps us focus on what is important, this prayer moves me.
The premise is the same as Kirk’s quote – “Let me help.” Where there is darkness let me be light. Where there is hatred let me bring love. Where there is sorrow, let me bring joy. It’s a setting of intentions of how to respond in situations where others need us. Situations where we can help.
The second half of the prayer tells us that in order to help we have to get outside of ourselves; we have to stop putting ourselves first and stop centering ourselves in all things and begin doing for others. I know that there are people who struggle with boundaries or being able to say no to others, and I respect what they need to do to heal, but I think there’s a toxic tendency in the world of self help to focus on the self, and this leads us away from something that can truly help us feel better: being of service to others.
“I love you” is thoughts and prayers, and it’s self centered at that. “Here’s how I feel about you.” “Let me help,” on the other hand, is words as action, and it’s not about me telling you how I feel, it’s me showing you how I feel.
(If we’re being really honest the best phrasing of this is probably “What do you need?” but that’s so much less poetic than “Let me help,” and doesn’t resonate with “I love you.”)
(Double digression: Kirk learns a terrible lesson about helping in this episode, wherein he has to choose between helping Edith Keeler and helping all of humanity. Thankfully for most of us we don’t ever have to grapple with whether or not we change the history of WWII and let the Germans win in order to save the life of the woman we love.)
The only way to alleviate the feeling of being helpless is to be of help. It doesn’t have to be directly related to whatever events are making you feel useless, you just have to be of use. Sometimes I’m of use by organizing food services for the homeless, or sometimes by raising money on my Facebook page or sometimes by volunteering for political causes I believe in. But other times I’m of use by hearing my friends when they’re hurting, by supporting my friends when they need it, by trying to become a person who is positive to be around at work, by creating a safe and welcoming attitude when I deal with strangers. “Let me help” is the intention I try to bring into everything I do (and I often fail, being as hopelessly human as I am), and I try to approach every interaction with this in mind.
One last thing: there are a lot of ways to help. Talking about what’s wrong is rarely one of them. When I am tempted to post something hopeless or defeated on social media about the latest thing that’s fucked up in our increasingly fucked up world, I try to ask myself, “Who will this help?” Sometimes sharing our doubts and struggles IS being helpful – the number of people I admire who have spoken about their pain, their mistakes and their wounds is staggering, and the ways that candor has given me strength are immeasurable – but there’s a fine line. It’s probably not helpful to yell at the president on Twitter, and I fear that some of these social media outlets allow us to feel – on the surface – like we have been of help. But we’re still unhappy because deep down inside we know we haven’t been of help.
Wait, I lied. One last last thing. Every way we help is valuable. Always keep that in mind. You know how the smallest negative comment can ruin your day? Your smallest kindness can do the opposite for someone else. No matter your situation, no matter your circumstance, you can help. It may not be clear how right now, but be open and it will make itself known to you.