Most everybody is familiar with Mr. Rogers’s quote, “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.’” It’s a beautiful quote, a lovely point of view, and just plain good, motherly advice.
When I first read it, I didn’t give the meaning a second thought—“helpers” meant professional helpers, people whose jobs are to respond to crises. I’m thinking of firefighters who climb into burning apartment buildings, or police officers who run toward neighborhood gunshots instead of away. Mr. Rogers’s line, then, functions as a paraphrase to something I learned in Safety Town way back when: If you ever get lost at the ballpark (grocery store, museum, et al.), find Officer Friendly. It’s akin to finding your parents. You will be alright.
When I was a kid—probably about the time I actually went to Safety Town—my mom, sister and I were in a car wreck. We were at an intersection and another car made a turn when it shouldn’t have. Bang! We smacked right into it. I remember our car’s crumpled fender and one of the headlights hanging down over the front bumper by its wires. It looked like the car’s eye had been knocked out, and the optical nerve was all that kept it connected. I remember my mom crying and a paramedic comforting her while the police inspected the damage trying to figure out whose fault it was.
Somebody—I have no idea who—whisked my sister and me into the lobby of the car dealership at that intersection. She and I were stunned but unhurt.
There was a gentleman sitting in the lobby of the dealership and there was something stereotypical about his old-man-ish appearance. Threadbare sports coat, lightbulb nose, thick glasses, dark scally cap. Maybe he’d come to the dealership that day to buy a car. Or maybe, as I suspect now, he was the kind of retired old man who hung around car dealerships for conversation and for the coffee in the lobby that poured sludgier than motor oil. Clearly, he’d seen the accident. He was sitting right there. And now, here were two shocked little car accident victims sitting next to him.
I tend to base my responses to my own life’s calamities on how people just beyond the purview of those calamities respond. The witnesses, in other words. You’re a kid up to bat in a little league game. The pitch comes in screaming but crooked and beans you dead in the face. The first thing you hear from your teammates: “Ohmigod, you’re BLEEEEEEE-DING!” Not only would you cry, but you would know, deep in your little kid heart, that you were about to exsanguinate and die, right there on home plate. But what if it’s your coach who gets to you before your teammates? He stoops to help you stand, presses a hanky to your nose—which is, in fact, waterfalling blood—and whispers, so only you can hear, “That was a tough shot, pal, but you’re going to be alright.” Well, you might still cry. Hell, this is little league, where there definitely is crying in baseball. But then, you hobble with him to the bench, wait for the blood (and tears) to dry up, and run back onto the field.
Anyway, that old man turned to the end table and picked out a Reader’s Digest from the stack of magazines. He opened it up to “Laughter, the Best Medicine.” And he began to read the jokes to my sister and me. And since the aftermath of a car accident—police and paramedics, insurance information, tow trucks—takes much longer than it takes to read one Reader’s Digest column, he went on to “Humor in Uniform,” and “Life in These United States.” He laughed along as he read the punchlines. Now, decades on, I understand he laughed not so much because the jokes were funny, but as a way to tell my sister and me that we were going to be alright. My mom was going to be alright. Everything was going to be alright.
I see Mr. Rogers’s quote differently now. The grown-up word for “you will be alright,” is mercy. Helpers, his mother must have meant, is another way to say mercy-givers. That accident could very well have traumatized my sister and me, and what a weighty burden trauma is, especially for little kids. But it didn’t. The old man was there in the moment with readily available and freely given mercy. Mercy means that one person unburdens another at the very moment an unburdening is most needed. I’ve been chained, by a dire circumstance and against my will, to a weight much too heavy for me to lift. But lifting it is the only way out of the dire circumstance. Hopeless? But then, somebody stronger comes along and lifts it for me and I’m free.
Cover image by Zhen Hu.
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