If I NEVER see the Mister Rogers quote to “Look for the helpers; there are always people who are helping,” when something goes dreadfully awry in our world again, it will be too soon.
Unfortunately, in the mist of our latest and greatest (by greatest I mean completely camel shit dick ball sucking craptastic) international disaster, I’ve found this platitude of the famous children’s TV show personality almost everywhere I look.
Sure, on the surface, it’s sweet, kind; it offers hope in the midst of despair. Hope is a good thing. I have nothing against hope.
What I DO resent is the bastardization of a sentiment intended to comfort children and reassure them their adults were in control of dangerous, traumatizing situations.
While it is natural this quote might comfort adults of children to whom they might offer it, it is often held aloft by adults instead, a sort of shield against their own anxiety.
In a way it pretends nothing more need be done than utter those magic words, and presto! Instant comfort and hope. All better.
Mister Rogers has had a moment over the past couple years. Our frenetic, mean world seems to crave his slow-spoken kindness. But with any figure who becomes pop icon, there is a sort of revisionist hagiography, a blurring of flaws so only goodness and purity shine through.
On a lot of pages and sites online, I see people asking, “What would Mister Rogers tell us about Covid-19?” And the invariable answer is, “He would tell us to look for the helpers!”
I didn’t know him personally, but I guess he might tell you that if you were in the four to eight-year-old demographic his show targeted.
But an adult?
I have to believe a man with his intelligence would have challenged us a bit more than just to look for arbitrary people doing important jobs in order to comfort ourselves in the paralysis of our own helplessness, or worse, our laziness.
If I am to continue having ANY respect for Mister Rogers, I must believe he would not encourage us to simply look for helpers while the world literally falls apart around us.
Here’s another reason I truly resent the use of that phrase: I’m a helper myself.
I’m a therapist. This time has been unbelievably unsettling for my clients, my colleagues, my profession.
Within a couple days, we had to figure out how to do our jobs completely differently to continue helping during this time of unprecedented challenge.
Anxiety, isolation, depression. Addiction. Abuse. Hunger. Homelessness.
In a world with billions upon billions of humans, people are lonelier than ever.
I also have a family. My kids are scared. They are schooling at home. I am helping them while juggling my entire caseload. The idea people would look for me as a helper and not see the entirety of my humanity agonizes me.
I’m only doing telehealth from the comfort and safety of home. Doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, bus drivers, pharmacists, and millions of other people who can be considered “helpers” don’t have that luxury.
One thing we all have in common? Fear.
You want to look for us? Know this: We are burnt out. Terrified. We are scared of getting infected, but even more than that, of infecting our families. We carry the weight of our clients and patients every waking moment and into our dreams. We experience vicarious trauma that keeps us up at night.
Right now, the usual boundaries we set for ourselves to stay balanced and healthy are askew. We are being asked to do more, take on more, be more flexible. It comes with the territory, but damn it feels dirty and unfair.
Being a helper gives me chest pains and raging shits. Sometimes I shake. Being a helper leaves me with very little for my own family. Being a helper makes me cry and feel hopeless. Often, my heart races. Being a helper makes me angry, full of rage. Being a helper makes me so tired, but doesn’t let me sleep.
Does this mean I shouldn’t be a helper? No. I don’t believe so. I believe it means I’m human.
Watch the clip of Fred Rogers, in the 2018 documentary, trying to address the nation after 911. He felt it too. He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t have endless reserves of compassion or patience. He despaired just like the rest of us. You can see it in his eyes, the slump of his shoulders. The rest of that documentary was dross to me for its desire to propel him to sainthood, but that one scene felt so real to me. It was the one moment to which I could relate to his actual humanity.
We are all of us squishy, stupid, flawed, fucking human beans.
We are imperfect, but we have a gift of being able to connect with people. If I didn’t care so much, I wouldn’t be this tired. If I didn’t truly care, I wouldn’t bother speaking out right now.
Here’s the other thing: As a helper, I can’t help anyone who isn’t willing to help themselves. You depressed? You got trauma? Cool. Let’s work. But let me be abundantly clear, you will be getting busy. My job is to open a door. It is your job to get up and walk through it. I can point to the thread that might start to untangle your messy web. It is your job to start pulling.
The reductive idea helpers exist to endlessly help is not only tiring, it is quite frankly offensive.
I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. That’s fine.
When pain, fear, or sorrow trigger us we tend to go where we are familiar and feel comfort. For many, Mister Rogers provides such refuge, and has since they were young. Do what you need, but I beg you, if you want to look for me as a helper- look at all of me.
Look for me with my greasy hair and baggy eyes. Look for me with the ugliness of my stress acne. Look for me falling asleep watching TV with my kids. Look for me taking walks and trying to crawl out of my own skin because the world scares me and I want to fly away.
Please don’t just look for me hanging up after a telehealth session when I’ve said something wise to create connective tissue with a client, massaged an old scar with clinical theory, helped someone establish safety. Please don’t just look at me when I am “winning” at helping. Helping is hard, fucking drudgery.
And for the love of milkshakes, please don’t just stand there and look! Spring into action!
None of us can know what Mister Rogers would say if he were here. Honestly, I can’t imagine he’d have any point of reference to say anything remotely cohesive about the horror happening on our planet. It doesn’t really matter what he would say.
I wonder if he would want adults to be more proactive with helping children and each other, as opposed to just sitting back and “looking” around.
What words of comfort or motivation can you offer?
There are a lot of ways that start within ourselves and have nothing to do with looking for others.
Reach out to someone to see if they are okay. Reach out to a helper to see if they are okay! I promise you, they are almost certainly not okay even if they say they are.
Draw, journal, listen to music, dance. Infuse the brilliance of art into the bleakness of trauma. Take walks. Sing. Nurture your body and soul.
Make cards and send them to a nursing home for the residents, or even to the staff to pick up their spirits during this time.
Start a gratitude journal. Studies show that focusing on things about which we can be thankful, as opposed to concentrating on the negative, helps encourage positive feelings to take root.
Take time and talk to the children in your life. Check in with them. Read them stories. Allow them time to ask questions about what is going on and to process their own feelings.
Focus on facts, not feelings. Consume social media and the news in smaller doses so you don’t fuel your own anxiety. This will allow you more energy for helping others.
If you are able, donate to a food pantry or to a shelter that is helping the most vulnerable of our citizens during this time. There are so many who don’t even have the luxury of what many of us take for granted every morning.
Together we can do so much to lift each other up during times of trouble, but only if we move beyond our comfort zone, past the shallows of familiar platitudes to the places where authentic connection can truly heal.