Texas Liberal

All People Matter

Two Great Sins—Vulnerability And Innocence

Public expressions of sentiment are often the kiss of death in America.

If elected officials, corporations, the media, or just plain folks, routinely express care and concern for specific groups of people, you can bet the objects of the attention are in for a rough ride.

Old people. Children. Veterans—They all need to run for cover.

We say we care. But if so, why don’t we do more for these people?   

I’ve long thought the sin of people who may need our help was simply vulnerability. In America, we often despise those we see as unable to “pull their own weight.”

Recently I read something that did not change my perspective on this question, but amended and expanded my view.

I read the ancient Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh. (The ancient tablet in the picture has a fragment of Gilgamesh written on it.)  I read a 1970 translation by Herbert Mason that was a finalist for the National Book Award. This poem is over 4500 years old.

In Gilgamesh, one of the two main characters, Enkidu, lives in innocence with animals. From the poem—

He ran with the animals,

Drank at their springs,

Not knowing fear or wisdom.

He freed them from the traps

The hunters set.

The hunters resent Enkidu for freeing the animals. They ask the King, Gilgamesh, to do something.  Gilgamesh sends a prostitute to the woods to lure Enkidu out of innocence. The prostitute accomplishes her task and the animals no longer want anything to do with Enkidu.

Enkidu joins human society and he and Gilgamesh become inseparable. Enkidu has the strength of the animals and is seen as an equal of the powerful king. Gilgamesh’s mother is a goddess.

At first Gilgamesh and Enkidu fought— many friendships start with conflict—but they see themselves in each other and they balance each other. 

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are strong together and this angers the gods. Enkidu is wounded and marked by the gods to die. At the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh was portrayed as an arrogant king who slept with the future bride of every soon-to-be married couple in the kingdom. But it is the more innocent Enkidu who dies. Why this is so is explained by Enkidu to Gilgamesh—

That night the wound Enkidu received

In his struggle with Humbaba grew worse.

He tossed with fever and was filled with dreams.

He woke his friend to tell what he heard and saw:

The gods have said that one of us must die

Because we killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.

Enlil said I must die, for you are two-thirds god

And should not die. But Shamash spoke

For me and called me “innocent.”

They all began to argue, as if that word

Touched off a universal rage.

I know that they have chosen me.

The anger that innocence provoked amongst the gods got me thinking. 

While vulnerability and innocence are kindred in some respects, they are not the same. An innocent person may not be a vulnerable person, and a vulnerable person may not be an innocent.

When we see a child, a veteran wounded serving others, or an old person no longer capable of what he or she was once able, our response is quite often not one of kindness or assistance.

I think these circumstances remind us of our own failings. And that we may someday be reliant on others. The idea we might be vulnerable makes us afraid. The idea that some are more innocent or blameless than we are makes us angry.

Our reactions toward people who make us feel this way often ranges between indifference, and the active pursuit of public policies that harm children, veterans and older people.

It seems this reaction towards people who need help is as old as human society. Though it is hard to imagine that the cowboy go-it-alone strain in American thinking helps very much.

Still, we can mend our ways. People who require help are likely not as vulnerable or innocent as we imagine.

And we do not have to be the people we have been before.

August 13, 2008 Posted by | Books, Poetry, Relationships | , , , , , , | Leave a comment