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Helping People We Can Really Help, By Kent Nerburn

If you have been reading my blog for a year or more, you probably know that I appreciate the work of a writer named Kent Nerburn. Several years ago, I came across an impactful letter that he once wrote to his son on how to choose a life partner, and I have been following his work ever since.

This morning, I found the following passage at his blog, one that I connected with right away. I have long thought about the types of people in this world who we can really empower with our efforts, and I think Kent's passage provides useful guidance on this life issue.

Norman Mailer and a Young Boy’s Request
By Kent Nerburn

I received an interesting email today. It was from a young man named Hayden who lives in Oregon. He is in the fifth grade and is doing a presentation on Chief Joseph. He wanted to know if I had any photos or stories or other materials I could give him.

Such requests are a challenge, because you cannot fulfill them all, but you do not want to turn away good hearted people who see something of value in making contact with you. And when the person reaching out to you is a fifth grader, you have a chance to touch his life in a significant way.

I still have a short note sent to me by Norman Mailer back in the early seventies when I wrote him from Stanford asking if I could come and work with him. It seems so breathtakingly naive now; what I would have done with him, I don’t know. But I was a young man in turmoil, and for reasons I cannot remember, he was the person to whom I reached out in hopes of some escape from a life that seemed to be strangling something inside of me.

His note was brief. But I still remember his last line. “Write more than you have been writing.” I’m sure it was just a way to finish the response. But to me, so desperate for meaning and direction, it became something of a creative beacon: if Norman Mailer said I should be writing more than I had been writing, then I should be writing more than I had been writing.

And I did. His words became the rudder in the choppy seas of my confused twenty-something life.

I never forgot him.

It is a humbling experience to have a young person reach out to you for advice or assistance, whatever your role or status in life. It means they are open to your wisdom and your counsel. In that brief encounter, you can shape a life.

We all get these opportunities, though not frequently. When they do come, they often do so in a clumsy or inarticulate fashion, because the young person who is reaching out has invested so much in the reaching that he or she does not do it with grace. Fumbling words, inappropriate requests, too constant a presence, a transparent attempt to seem worldly or knowledgeable — these are only a few of the ways this hopeful reaching for help and insight can express itself.

We need to see past these clumsy efforts when a young person reaches out to us for assistance. We need to stop what we’re doing, open our hearts and ears, and hear what a hungry heart is asking of us.

Young Hayden has in no fashion been clumsy and inappropriate. In fact, he has been mature beyond his years. But it would be easy for me to pass him by in the rush of my own life if I don’t acknowledge that this, like my reaching out to Norman Mailer, is a gesture of hope and respect, and a request for direction.

I hope I can do something of value for young Hayden. I will do my best.

This is my moment, and the memory of Norman Mailer’s kind response echoes in my heart.


If you appreciate this passage and want to read more of Kent Nerburn's work, visit:


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Hello Dr. Kim,

Thanks for posting this passage. I think that it is very important indeed that we take the time to listen to those who have the courage to reach out, and not just label them as going through 'stages' in their lives. Those 'stages', after all, ARE their lives.

I was wondering if you had a link to the letter that Kent Nerburn wrote to his son on how to choose a life partner. I would be interested in reading it.

Thanks again for your wonderful newsletter, I learn something new all the time.

Yours truly,


Hello Julia,

Thank you for your kind note - I am glad that you connected with this passage.

Please click on the "related" tab below to find a link to other articles by Kent Nerburn, including the one on choosing a life partner.

I encourage you to visit <a href="" target="_new"></a>, where you can purchase his entire collection of letters to his son. The last time I checked, the link to this book was at the top left hand side of his site.

With best wishes,

Ben Kim

I just came across Dr. Kim's website by noodling around in the statistics and information for my own. I am honored that you mentioned my website, Dr. Kim, and that you recommend it to others. For Julia and those who might be interested in that essay, it is from my book, Letters to My Son, published by New World Library. You can purchase it online or from almost any bookstore. If you would prefer, you can get it personalized through me, or can purchase it as part of a gift basket on my website.

It is a heartfelt book of which I am very proud. I hope you will look it up.

And thank you again, Dr. Kim, for your mention. In your work and blog you do a great service for us all.

P.S. If I hear from enough of you, I will try to find the essay and post it on my blog. So go to and make a comment on the page Dr. Kim references. It will get to me and I can respond accordingly.

Hello Dr. Kim,

Thank you for including this essay from Kent Nerburn in your news letter. Within 5 minutes of reading it I have forwarded it on to 5 people - GREAT people who I feel need to get some reinforcement for their efforts in helping young people. They are ALL GREAT TEACHERS that have impacted the lives of my own children, plus countless others.

I write to tell you this because I hope through this website others might read my words and repeat what I have done. One of the GREAT tragedies of our society today is that GREAT teachers like the ones I forwarded Kent's words to DO NOT GET SUPPORT from society and often times they do not get support from THEIR OWN ADMINISTRATORS!!

MANY, MANY GREAT TEACHERS leave the profession because they are BURNT OUT! They try and try and try, only to get slapped down - either from "the system" (meaning the school district or school administrators), parents of children that they are reaching out to, or the student's themselves - who CANNOT TRUST AN ADULT!

While it is said that parenting is "the hardest job you'll ever love" many people do not realize that teachers "parent" MANY MANY more children than individual families will ever touch and NEED TO BE SUPPORTED!! No, I'm not a school teacher, I'm a Dental Hygienist with a minor in education - but I TEACH, MOTIVATE, and try to impact lives all day too. (and I was a Girl Scout leader for 12 years) However, I believe from the bottom of my heart that teachers need all the help they can get and I try to help when ever I can.

I think one of the reasons teachers have such a hard job is that the job of parenting has gotten harder and harder as our society has gotten faster and faster. Kids DO NOT come with an instuction book, and our society has made the job of parenting difficult as well. For parents (or others) who want to learn how to be more effective I can HIGHLY recommend the DEVELOPING CAPABLE PEOPLE program by Dr. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson. More information about Dr. Glenn can be found at this website:

When entire schools are trained in Dr. Glenn's methods (and some have been) we will ALL benefit.

Yours in health,