An Open Letter To The Helpers

“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.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” –Fred Rogers

Dear Helpers,

This quote has been a constant presence on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr the past few days. Every time I read it, I feel myself exhale, slowly and cautiously, and in that moment I realize I’ve been holding my breath ever since the first terrifying details started spilling out of Newtown, CT.

Twenty children and six teachers were murdered at school on Friday. Three days before that, a masked man walked into a mall a few miles from my house and murdered two people. I have no idea how to process that reality. I think of the victims, and I am overwhelmed with grief. I can hardly bear to think of the pain and fear they experienced in their last moments on Earth, and worse, how they were robbed of the chance to live. I think of the killers, and I am overwhelmed with anger–sadness, too, but mostly anger. I think about the cultural factors that contribute to tragedies like this, and I am overwhelmed with frustration and hopelessness.

Then, with a gentle nudge from Mr. Rogers, I think of you, the helpers, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

In the midst of chaos, you’re easy to spot. You are wearing a uniform. You are rushing into a building when screaming people are rushing out. You are doing CPR. You are stitching up wounds. You are facing scenes of horror and brutality so the rest of us don’t have to.

But you are also in the background. We all saw photos of young children consoling each other in the parking lot of Sandy Hook–those kids are helpers. The community that gathers to support 26 grieving families is a community of helpers. Even those of us who were far removed from the violence, who took a moment to share thoughts of love instead of fear, we are helpers too.

One of the most awful truths about the Sandy Hook killings is that when we take Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers, we will find their warm smiles in the photo collages of the victims. The stories of the heroism exhibited in the halls of that elementary school are breathtaking. A school principal who ran toward the sound of gunshots. Young teachers who hid their students away in closets before facing down a madman. Those women died while helping. How can we repay them for their sacrifice? Keep helping.

Last week was terrifying in so many ways. I never went looking for violence and death, but suddenly it seemed to be everywhere. Thankfully, when I went looking for the helpers, I realized you were everywhere too: therapists who offered their services for free; activists who are working hard to ensure this never happen again; writers who shared their perspectives in a brave and vulnerable way; teachers who expressed their shock and sorrow and then wiped their eyes and went back to their classrooms to keep helping. These people are so much stronger than a coward with a firearm. It is time for us to acknowledge and applaud their strength.

The act of helping may never provide a result as immediate and final as the effect of pulling the trigger of a gun, but it is ultimately much more powerful. When I looked for the helpers, I found the light in a dark world. I found a reason to keep helping.

Thank you, helpers. You are so much more important than you know.