The kindness of strangers: Look for the helpers

The kindness of strangers: Look for the helpers

These have been challenging weeks in many parts of our country. Wildfires rage in the West, and the South was pummelled by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in rapid succession. This week we also remembered 9/11, now 16 years ago, but still as alive in our minds as ever. 

It is easy to get caught up in the horror of all these things, and we do need to know about them. It's important to get outside ourselves and understand the experiences of others. How can we support people if we don't pay attention to their needs? 

At the same time, the news can be overwhelming. It's easy to feel helpless about everything that's happening. I found myself glued to news outlets and Facebook this week for updates about Irma. I heard about the devastation as the hurricane tore through island communities on its way to Florida. I rolled my eyes at people complaining about canceling their vacations. "This isn't about you," I thought. "People are dying. People are losing everything." I was torn between sadness and worry for my friends and family and frustration with the insensitivity of the masses.

Look for the helpers

Then I remembered something that Mr. Rogers said. (For the record, Mr. Rogers is one of my favorite human beings of all time.) As Fred Rogers revealed in an interview, his mother used to tell him, "Always look for the helpers." This was salient advice given the circumstances, and it reminded me that: 1. Mr. Rogers understood humanity, and 2. There are, indeed, helpers in all these situations. Whenever something bad happens, there are quiet acts of selflessness that carry people through it. 

There are still good people out there

In most cases, people are neither entirely good or bad. We do awesome things, and we do things that suck. Maybe it would be better to say that there are people who rise to the occasion. Even though headlines can inspire hopelessness, there's still decency in the world. I have experienced this myself. 

When I lived in Chapel Hill, I was sick. I weighed less than 100 pounds, and I could hardly keep up with my work. I remember that I needed to buy groceries, and the nearest store was quite a distance from my home. I was too foolish to ask for help, too broke to take a cab, and buses weren't an option that day for some reason. Anyway, I pulled on my coveralls because it's cold in January in NC, and I walked. I grabbed as much food as I could afford and carry, and I trekked home. 

Venturing the 40 minutes or so across Chapel Hill with groceries was a physical feat that I shouldn't have undertaken. The final stretch of the trip was a quarter-mile uphill climb. I trudged on with groceries, wondering if I'd make it. 

When I approached the bottom of the hill, I must have looked rough. A stranger peered from behind the hood of his broken down car. This guy asked in a thick southern drawl if I needed some help. A bunch of thoughts rushed through my head, and I wish I could tell you that they were all good ones, but they weren't. I was apprehensive because I was already too weak to walk--let alone fight someone if it came to that. Such is the state of fear that many of us find ourselves in these days. At the same time, I knew I wasn't going to make it up that hill by myself.

This man closed the hood, took the bags hanging off my arms, and we started walking. I was still out of breath, but it was so much easier to move now. He carried them to the parking lot of my apartment complex. I felt grateful that I made it home and that my cupboards wouldn't be bare. I was even more thankful for the helping hand that seemed to come from nowhere. 

Fast forward to this week

Many headlines spoke of the carnage left behind after storms, but some stories focused on the helpers. Thanks to the internet, I saw monster trucks helping the National Guard get un-stuck down in Texas. I watched as people rallied around their communities while strangers donated money or volunteered their services.

The 920th Rescue Wing rescues people stranded after Hurricane Harvey. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lindsey Maurice)

The 920th Rescue Wing rescues people stranded after Hurricane Harvey. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lindsey Maurice)

Just this morning, I read a story about a nursing home who had been without power in the wake of Irma. A nearby nursing home lent them a generator and some gasoline to help keep their elderly residents cool. For the elderly, climate control is not a luxury; it's a medical necessity. 

Some people opened their homes to those evacuees. First responders, military, and medical personnel worked and continue to go above and beyond for something bigger than themselves. 

My own family was affected by the kindness of strangers this week. One of my relatives had to evacuate from the coast with her very large dog. She has been a bit under the weather these days, and although the dog has plenty of space to run at home, he's tough to walk on a leash-- especially if you're sick and he weighs more than you. Evacuation meant that they'd have to stay at a shelter or hotel, and the dog would need to be on a leash. 

They made their way a few hours inland. Luckily, there have been helpers at every turn. Three hotel employees offered to walk the dog throughout the stay. One man even came in on his day off to lend a hand. Then, at 2 AM the other night, the dog decided that he needed to go out. A young couple - all tattooed and awake at that late hour - noticed the dog-struggle and took the leash. (I bring up their appearance only to point out that helpers may appear as real people with tattoos, piercings, and skinny jeans, and not like idealized people dressed in brightly colored spandex.)

We can all be forces for good

As a military spouse, I have witnessed more acts of kindness than I can count. Putting populations under stress brings out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best. Sometimes the bad stuff gets more press, though. More often, I've seen struggle as the place from which people rise.

From small acts of kindness by strangers to friends that step in at decisive moments, I'm always reminded of how we are all connected and how we can all make a difference. Some of us have training to assist in these situations, but there are no prerequisites for being a helper. Anyone can notice a problem and make an effort to fix it. What may seem small to you could be a game-changer for someone else.

Right now, people are still digging their way out of the catastrophe. They're going to get things up and running again in spite of negative systemic forces because they must. They are helping one another right now, and we'll never understand the depths of it from this vantage point. I'm going to keep looking for the helpers in every situation, and if I can be a helper, I want to do that too. 

My thoughts are with the people and places affected by these disasters.

Has some random act of kindness pulled you through a tough spot? Tell us about it in the comments.