When following Mr. Rogers' advice to ‘look for the helpers’ is not enough
Since Saturday’s shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Mr. Rogers. Before this terrible tragedy, I couldn’t have told you where Fred Rogers lived if all of the marbles were on the line. But now, Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood is indelibly etched into my brain as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
It’s also, of course, the same neighborhood where the Tree of Life synagogue is located.
Like so many others of my generation, I grew up with Mr. Rogers. He was one of my first teachers, and is doubtlessly responsible for helping to instill in me a number of core principles.
Sometime in early adulthood, I first recall hearing his “Look for the helpers” anecdote. For those unfamiliar with the story, Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’”
It’s not a bad piece of advice — for small children, anyway. Before the Tree of Life shooting, that advice was already coming under scrutiny. The problem with it, at its core, is the way it is being used by adults who have a childlike sense of helplessness when they turn on the nightly news.
It’s not enough to “look for the helpers,” some say. Our responsibility, as adults, is to BE the helpers. A whole canon of social commentary has been written about Mr. Rogers’ advice. But this week, writing for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost made a succinct case against what he calls the “fetishization” of looking for “the helpers,” arguing that “turning the reassuring line for children into a meme for adults should make everyone uncomfortable.”
“It feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards,” Bogost writes. “Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.”
While “look for the helpers” is easily the most-cited wisdom from Mr. Rogers when it comes to helping children cope with tragedy, but it’s just one of many helpful tips Fred Rogers Productions offers for dealing with tragic events.
These are strange and often-upsetting times. Whether it’s another mass casualty event — which seems to happen every time you turn around — or just the jarring and divisive political rhetoric which has become commonplace, looking for the helpers is not enough. Neither is being a helper.
Sure, we must help when we can, but we also need to take a little responsibility. We need to hold those responsible accountable. Of course, we can do that by speaking out against injustice and hatefulness when we see it. We do it through civic engagement and in the polling booth. We do it by summoning the better angels of our nature and creating for the next generation an adult world in which it is suitable to live.
It starts with us.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 11/01/18