Before falling asleep each night, I read multiple news outlets, and after another unhealthy dose last night, I resolved to give myself a break in the morning. Although I am a bit of a news junkie, I sometimes find I need a break when the messages begin to overwhelm me, and I could tell I was reaching my threshold of sanity as my eyes drifted closed. Like the vast majority of my good intentions declared in the fleeting moments before sleep, this one flew right out the window as I waited for my coffee to finish brewing.
Shots fired during a softball practice in Alexandria. Members of Congress. People wounded.
And just like that, I was back in front of my many news-baring platforms, listening for more information, waiting to see precisely what had happened and if we knew why, thinking of the people I love who are in the area as I mentally prepared for yet another day dedicated to a screen.
I was teaching media writing at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I felt lost as I tried to focus on finalizing my class notes, thinking about how I was trying to impress journalistic integrity on my students in the shadows of an attack on this very profession. That’s when I stumbled across this quote, attributed to Mr. Rogers:
“’Always look for the helpers,’ she’d [his mother] tell me. ‘There’s always someone who is trying to help.’ I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.”
In that moment, one where the world seemed too much for any one person to comprehend, I decided to always focus there—on the helpers—when everything felt to be too big, too much, and too painful.
A few weeks ago, a young girl went missing close to my neighborhood, and the community came out in droves to help search for her. When the attack outside of a concert happened in London, my Twitter feed was filled with messages, strangers offering stranded strangers a place to stay until they could get back home. When Orlando sent out a call for blood donations in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, people stood for hours in line to donate with the hopes of impacting a single life. Representative Mo Brooks took off his belt, creating a makeshift tourniquet to help stop the bleeding when his colleague was wounded.
The truth is simple: we all need helpers sometimes. I know I certainly have, and they’ve always managed to find me even when the crisis is limited to my mind and not necessarily on display. Sometimes, they show up as students with a word or two of gratitude on a particularly tough teaching day. Fairly regularly, they come to me as friends, people I love and admire, and those whose mentorship I’ve relied on for a few decades now. But there have also been times when my helpers have been complete strangers—people whose acts of kindness haven’t gone unnoticed even when there was no way for them to know that their actions, regardless of how seemingly small, left a significant mark on me.
The barista who told me I was known as the customer with the really cute dress collection on a day when end-of-the-semester exhaustion had taken its toll.
The truck driver who helped a teenaged me change my tire in the parking lot of an interstate rest stop, his young daughter looking on.
The woman who approached Heather and I just to tell me I was beautiful on a night when a recent break up had left me feeling vulnerable and exposed.
The driver who waved as she pulled away from the Starbucks window as I learned that my coffee was already paid for; her only message that I pay it forward.
Each time I read about or experience an act of pure kindness, I am always initially shocked—and then grateful—for it, and that initial reaction makes me sad. I start to consider how I’ve become so accustomed to the ugly that I overlook the beautiful. Because for every person who inflicts pains in this world, there are ten more quietly working to make it better for someone, somewhere. That regardless of how deeply divided we’ve become or how different we may seem, we remain connected as people, and the potential in that connection is endless.
I don’t know if Mr. Rogers ever said what has been attributed to him, and honestly, I don’t really care. It’s not the messenger that matters to me as much as the message. Just like I don’t care about Representative Brooks’ political party or the personal belief systems of those who offered shelter or who donated blood in the aftermath of those attacks or who volunteered their time to searching for a lost little girl. At the core of each and every one of these individuals resides a strength of character that is to be admired. That in moments of chaos and crisis, they stepped forward to offer support in ways both direct and indirect, big and small.
As I write, my second screen displays my news feeds, and my television is tuned to live coverage as more information is made available. And in the constant noise of talking heads and interviews, I can hear a small voice in the back of mind asking what are we waiting for? Why do we need a catastrophe to remind us of our own courage? A crisis to remind us of our own gifts to give?
What if we decided that the world is awfully scary, but we can choose not to be scared? What if we went about our day quietly offering some small piece of ourselves—a kind word, a cup of coffee, a smile—with nothing more than the intention of spreading a little good around? What if we chose to foster the beauty instead of cultivating the not so much?
I know this is idealistic, but what if—what if—we all decided to be helpers? The ones who never get directly called upon but who decide to act instead. The ones in the background, giving, asking nothing in return. Helpers. The ones making a difference, big and small, so that the world feels a little less ugly, a little less lonely, a little less scary for every single one of us. In short, what if we decided to wake up every morning and be what the world needs right now? Because, quite honestly, the world currently needs a lot more helpers, and, some days, I do too.