“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
– Fred Rogers
Maybe it’s because we’re living in a time where we’re more divided than we’ve been in decades, but the words, lessons and memory of Fred Rogers have enjoyed a renaissance in the last few years. From the critically-acclaimed documentary about his life Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in 2018 or last year’s Oscar-nominated A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood it seems that in the midst of our polarization, anxiety and divisiveness we trace our way back to this man and his unique way of being, teaching, and supporting others. Mr. Rogers was seemingly always present, always thinking of others — especially children — and delivering what they needed to feel seen, understood, and self-confident.
Today, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic engulfs America at an unprecedented rate the virus has completely transformed all aspects of our life in disruptive and destructive ways. And we don’t need to be a math expert to come to the sobering reality that things will likely get worse before they begin to get better.
Crises like this have a funny way of waking us up to our shared commonalities instead of exposing and capitalizing on our perceived differences. So with COVID-19, I paid attention to the news coming out of China that started at the end of last year, reading stories, watching videos, diving deep down into the virtual rabbit hole created by each terrifying hashtag. And I certainly felt sadness and sympathy for the infected, a number quickly rising by the day. But sympathy and sadness are one thing, and empathy is another entirely. Empathy requires much more of us, tasking ourselves with stopping our daily routine and really imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s unique situation. Maybe it’s because we’re all desensitized to tragedy when it’s not right on our doorstep. I just don’t know. Maybe these are the kinds of questions you’ve asked yourself too in the last few weeks or even days.
As January turned into February and the real threat of COVID-19 became less peripheral and more imminent I started to do the “just in case” shopping and planning a lot of us did. Little by little, buying frozen food, that 3-pack of disinfecting wipes instead of the solo container, etc. Since many of us have ever gone through a pandemic like this in America, we were arrogantly ill-equipped – preparing as we would for an incoming hurricane. As major events, sports leagues and in our case – jobs we’d been planning out for months – quickly and dramatically got cancelled, the day-to-day course of our lives seemed to transform overnight. The shock of it all was bizarre, something I think we’re all trying to quickly wrestling with as we struggle to adjust, and merely hang on.
Moving from “hanging on” into perseverance means discovering those glimmers of hope. We all need that right now, and looking to lessons from people that inspire us isn’t a bad place to start. I’m certainly not the first person to think of Mr. Rogers and his advice for what to do and where to look in the midst of this crisis. But know what? I don’t care about being unique right now. I care about being thoughtful, about being present, and most importantly this time…being empathetic.
We can look now to The Helpers in this crisis we all face as beacons lighting our way through the dark. Doing what I do for a living means I’m lucky enough to work with a lot of people in many different paths of life. I’ve worked with police officers, with firefighters, with scientists, with educators, professionals in the hospitality and food service industry and many healthcare professionals. These are just some of the professionals at the front lines of this crisis, going out everyday and risking their own health for the rest of us. Throughout my now almost 20 years working in media, I’ve sat with them and crafted scripts, I’ve sat across from them and talked to them about their day-to-day; their successes, their struggles, their professional and often personal journeys. I’m also lucky enough to call some healthcare professionals and volunteers (don’t forget about our volunteer emergency services workers) some of my closest friends and family. These are The Helpers that we so easily take for granted when life is easy and good, but immediately look to in times of adversity and turmoil – like the current moment. These are the heroes that Mr. Rogers would point out to nervous children and say, “look, there are The Helpers.”
So how do we support them, how do we honor them in this dire time? At least in healthcare, most physicians or nurses that have been asked this question have routinely answered the question in bizarrely consistent ways…
Top of Mind: “Send masks, gloves, and other PPE equipment you can.”
In the last few days, we’re seeing this begin to happen. From major businesses all the way to individuals producing and / or physically delivering whatever protective equipment they have to the doorstep of the nearest hospital. We need more of this action for sure, but again the lesson holds – look to those producing, and donating — they’re The Helpers too.
From there: “Stay home. Practice social distancing.”
This is really difficult for us, especially as Americans who are used to doing whatever we want…whenever we want. This crisis is a real test of our freedom. But it’s a test we have to pass to support those putting their lives on the line to keep us healthy and safe.
And then: “Send food. We love food.”
Well now we’re definitely speaking my language. Not only is this a great way to recharge and refuel, but it just shows people you’re thinking about them and they’re appreciated.
And this brings me to my final thoughts on how we can honor The Helpers. Think of the times in your life where you’ve worked the hardest, no matter what you do for a living. The times where you’ve gone with little to no sleep to get a project accomplished or meet a deadline that at first seemed impossible. When you’re in it, what signs do you look for to know you’re doing okay? It’s simple. You look for people around you to show their appreciation, to tell you that all the work you’re doing is being recognized, that it’s not all for nothing. You look for those tiny emotional energy boosts, igniting hormones in the brain that push you forward. No matter who we are or what we do, we’re all human and we all need those boosts of supportive energy. I’d think this is true right now for The Helpers out there, working endless shifts, running out of supplies, putting their lives on the line.
This starts with each of us thinking about the individuals we know and love who are out there now working tirelessly right now. It means reaching out to them, letting them know we see them and deeply appreciate their service and sacrifice.
In the aftermath of the great tragedy on September 11th, 2001 many then also looked to Mr. Rogers for his wisdom and guidance. On the first anniversary of 9/11, in the middle of battling the stomach cancer he would succumb to a few months later he delivered his final thoughts to the generations that grew up watching him. Here’s an excerpt from that broadcast:
No matter how old we are right now, we’re likely all scared on some level. Scared for our children, are parents and grandparents, our family and friends all across the country. And most likely, we’re scared for ourselves too. In the face of vast uncertainty and in the absence of leadership we’re all looking for The Helpers right now. But this time around, discovering them isn’t good enough. We need to let them know we see them, that we’re grateful for them and their sacrifices in order to move us all forward.
Sometimes The Helpers are looking for glimmers of hope too. They’re looking for signals and signs that all the work isn’t for nothing, that they’re having a positive impact and headed in the right direction.
Sometimes, The Helpers look back at us. They need our help too.