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.” – Fred Rogers
Who doesn’t love Mr. Rogers? For many of us, he showed us how to be a good neighbor and contribute in a positive way to our communities. This particular quote introduces a page with a parental guide for helping children process tragic events. Many of us carry the lessons learned into our adult lives.
The idea of looking for the helpers is one that brings comfort. All is not lost. Focus on the positive. It’s true that in nearly every case, you can find the helpers. Even if you can’t find individual helpers, you can see the work that has been done. It’s a good reminder for kids not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.
Hearing the phrase feels good even to the adults. Some of you are mentally patting yourselves on the back right now because you grew up to be one of those helpers. Go ahead, reach out and do it for real. Just, don’t pull a muscle or anything. You’re smiling; I know. You might even be feeling a little smug.
It’s part of the core of who you are. You’re a helper. You are the one people look to in times of trouble or tragedy. Your halo positively glows. This is who you wanted to grow up to be and your very identity is built around it.
How are you feeling right now? Pretty good? Warm and fuzzy and appreciated for you what you do?
Good, because I want to ask you a harder question that you might only want to answer quietly to yourself. Why is it so important to you? Because you want to help or because you want to be seen as a helper? It’s actually a pretty important distinction and it might be difficult to see the answer right away. If the true desire is to help, the focus will be on the needs of those in need of help. Your actions will be focused on bringing them comfort and aid. If you want to be seen as a helper, the focus is you. You might do things that would make you feel better if you were in their shoes. That may or may not actually be helpful, but it’ll probably make you feel pretty good. You’ll feel like you’re doing something helpful, and if you’re lucky, you are. If you aren’t so lucky, you’ll be causing more harm and you won’t be able to see it.
While you’re championing the downtrodden and polishing the next jewel for your crown, the news cameras are moving on. Those who want to be seen as helpers often boast about it. They proudly tout their empathy, when in reality, empathy is as much a vice as it is a virtue. Deeply feeling the pain of others is a vulnerability with risk of exploitation.
I’m not unique in that I’ve been on the receiving end of both helpers and those that want to be seen as such. The differences are often noticeable, but if you’re providing food for the hungry, people are fed either way. Don’t feel too bad if being seen as a helper is your motivation. There’s a greater than zero chance of a net good.
It is my sincere hope that I’ve been able to be a helper when the situation called for it. Being thanked and having that feel good is great. Often the right attention can draw out more helpers and multiply the good.
If you want to be a helper, focus on the need and not the thanks or your reward. Focus on whoever you are helping. Even if you are never recognized or thanked, I’d be willing to bet that the goodness and benefits will multiply. I know that I will never be able to thank the helpers in my life enough for what they have done. The best I can do is try to spread that to someone else. Helpers deserve the applause. Never do it for the applause.