Wide Spot: Look for the Helpers

When my little brother died, I found myself utterly alone. I felt like I was trapped in a transparent box, invisible to everyone but me. No matter what I said or did, I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t touch anyone. And no matter what anyone else said or did, it didn’t touch me. The senseless tragedy of his death isolated me.

Senseless tragedies come in all shapes and sizes. A teenager overdoses. A forest fire wipes out a community. A terrorist blows up a nightclub. Children starve to death.

We call these tragedies senseless because we can’t take them in: they make no sense. They render life meaningless. When they happen directly to us, the “thing that happened” grabs front and centre in our waking minds. We obsessively replay painful memories. We feel deeply isolated from the world and from the people we love. Even if we’re just on the periphery of the event, our lives can be indelibly altered by tragedy.

Common reactions to senseless tragedy are anger and blame. This is reasonable: sometimes there are people to blame and reasons to be angry. This whole mess of emotions is a normal response of flesh and blood. The instinctual part of the brain is at work, attempting to wrestle some meaning back into life. This is how many of us try to get return to “normal.” 

The problem is that neither blame nor anger will ultimately heal the loss. They won’t get us out of our invisible isolation box. For healing, may I suggest that we listen to Mr. Rogers?

Fred Rodgers told kids that when they saw scary things on the news, they should look for the helpers. This adage came back to me after a recent personal calamity. As the days after the event went by, and disturbing memories popped up for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that a number of helpers—all of them strangers—were also in those memories. One came with flares, one offered her presence, one had knowledge of resources in the area, and one organized names and numbers.

I am not trying to suggest that the griefs of tragedy should or could be bypassed by a Pollyanna focus on what’s nice. I’m simply saying that when your world has exploded, it’s not a bad idea to poke around and see what else is there besides the catastrophe. It helps to use a really, really wide lens, one big enough to notice that in the midst of what seems like total darkness, there are sparks of light.

In my religious tradition, this is a time when we remember a big senseless tragedy, full of betrayal, abandonment and death. But when I look widely, there’s more. There’s the one who wipes his face. There are the ones who stand vigil. There’s the one who brings something to drink. The helpers are there, letting the one who is suffering know, “You are not alone.” Isn’t that, after all, what we all need to hear?

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