In tragic times, we should look for 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.”

It is not hard to find this quotation on Facebook or Twitter or in newspapers in these days of tragedy and terror.

The very best friends, the very best family members, the very best pastors, priests, rabbis or imams, the very best teachers, the very best people are those who have compassion; not a mere show of compassion, but true, from the heart compassion for those who are less fortunate, for those who suffer or for those who have experienced some horrific tragedy. The very best people are always the helpers.

In the wake of the Newtown killings at Sandy Hook and the plant disaster in Texas, our country has now undergone yet another tragedy of terror and murder in Boston, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

A place that should have been the site of victory and accomplishment has become the location of unspeakable horror and pain and agony, and even death.

What do we tell our children about Sandy Hook and about the 2013 Boston Marathon?

Perhaps one of our best teachers during times like these is an ordained Presbyterian minister whose PBS program taught adults as well as small children for a quarter of a century.

He is, of course, the late Fred Rogers who from his neighborhood taught us so much about life. Although Mr. Rogers died in 2003, he teaches us still.

Following the Newtown shootings, it was that wonderful Jim Judkis photograph of a completely trusting, tow-headed boy cradling Mr. Rogers’ face in his small hands as both the boy and Mr. Rogers smile, directly and lovingly into each other’s face, that immediately went viral on Facebook.

According to Judkis’s daughter, Maura, her father “took photos for Mister Rogers for nearly 25 years until the TV host’s death.”

The famous photograph “came from their very first session together in 1978, a shoot for People magazine.

It was taken at what was then called the Memorial Home for Crippled Children (or the The Children’s Institute) in Pittsburgh, where Rogers’ show was filmed.

Rogers was visiting the school to spend some time with the children, and my dad remembers the kids’ first encounter with him.”

Mr. Rogers entered the room, and the blond-headed boy “immediately went right up to him and held out his hands to touch him, and he said ‘Mister Rogers!’ In total awe. Total awe. And that was the moment of the photo,” said Judkis.

“There’s a real connection happening in that photo, and a helper is someone who really connects,” said Judkis. “Those were very brilliant words that he said, and the picture of Fred personifies the words.”

In times of tragedy, we should repeat the words of Mr. Rogers’ mother to our children and grandchildren.

We should “look for the helpers.” For it is from the helpers that we learn compassion. And what our world needs, more than anything else, is compassion.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.