If Mr Rogers were alive today, what would he do in response to Covid-19?
Well, it turns out he did have some useful insight on dealing with difficult times, of which Covid-19 definitely qualifies. In this video interview, he says, “look for the helpers”. He reminds us that they’re always there somewhere, probably on the sidelines.
Hope and reassurance
Mr Rogers tells us that remembering that there are helpers around us gives us hope and reassurance. To me, this is a relief. One of the reasons I am an artist is that my senses are highly attuned to what is going on around me. This is great in some ways, but it can be overwhelming in others, especially in difficult situations, especially when other helpers are not clearly visible.
This video, shared by a friend of mine on Linkedin, is a great reminder to ask myself, what would Mr Rogers do, and to think of my life as he might see it.
It reminds me of an incident in which I witnessed a motorcycle accident out in front of my parents’ house, which is on the corner of a busy highway intersection. As far as I could see, a driver in a car made a mistake in judgement that led him/her to t-bone the motorcyclist. The speed limit here is 80 km/h.
Standing outside at the time, I turned to see the bike piled on top of its driver, the driver not moving. I experienced a moment of terror. I knew that I might need to go to the scene to help the driver, even if that simply meant calling 911 and telling them what sort of condition he was in. Why terror? a). I did not want to see a human being’s wrecked body, and b). I was pretty sure the needs of the situation were beyond what I could offer.
Out of the “woodwork”
As I stood there hesitating for a few moments with these powerful and opposing drives–go and help! v. turn away!–something amazing happened. A woman walking along the side road with a mother and her baby called out, “I’m a nurse!” and ran to the scene. The passenger of one of the cars stopped at the light jumped out and called, “I have class 3 industrial first aid!” and also ran to the scene. Across the highway in the parking lot of a furniture store, a flagging crew that was taking a break jumped into action to slow and direct traffic safely while these helpers did what they do. A few other people jumped out of their cars to lift the bike off its driver. All of this unfolding before the ambulance came.
I get emotional thinking about this because our lives can feel very isolating sometimes. Living in a city can feel alienating as people swish by each other every moment without even acknowledging each other. It is good to be reminded that in a pinch, helpers are there somewhere, in some shape or form.
In this instance of the motorcycle accident, I had no idea they were there, but they were there. And they stepped up when they were needed.
Helpers in snow storms
It also makes me think of winter snow storms on Capitol Hill in Burnaby, where I live. Our region here is pretty temperate, so we get very little snow in the winter. A lot of people don’t bother getting winter tires, and a lot of people have little to no experience or skill driving in the snow. Still, it usually snows for a few days, and sometimes even a few weeks every year, and chaos ensues on Capitol hill.
Some people get angry and speed by in their large SUVs, yelling out their windows at people slipping and sliding up, back down, or off the road. But there are others, many others, who stop or come out of their surrounding homes to help.
Helpers in summer heat
In the summer time, I have seen accidents produce the same results, primarily from passersby. By this I mean that I don’t think my neighbourhood is particularly full of good Samaritans. I think these incidents reveal that in general, at a moment’s notice, there are people willing to stop what they’re doing, for example, to help a woman who is trapped in her car between a pole and a fence, while others call up first responders to make sure they know what to expect and prepare for. They are willing to dig people’s cars out of the snow or help guide them safely to the side, so they can park and wait out the storm. The helpers are there.
Remember them. I say this to myself as much as anyone else.
Then I also say…
It is true that there are situations like the Kitty Genovese case (trigger warning), in which there were many witnesses to her violent murder in a back alley, which took around 30 minutes. It appeared at first that no one even called the police. There is some truth but also some strong negativity bias in the first reporting on this by the New York Times. Further examination of the case reveals witnesses did take action, including calling out to the attacker to leave Genovese alone! and calling the police. Sadly this probably wasn’t taken seriously enough at first, but they were called again by other witnesses, and they did come, though unfortunately too late to save her from her attacker’s final assault and her resulting death.
This was a true tragedy. However, it is not as dark as people originally thought. And this is the point. There are instances that may suggest to us that no one cares, or no one is willing to help, but there is often more to the story than is immediately obvious, and I think if we really examine our experiences of difficult situations, there are more cases full of helpers, and instances without them are the exception.
Another positive take on this story is that the failure of the police to understand the urgency of the situation and respond quickly enough led to the creation of the 911 system. This tells me that it was not a case of clueless or cold negligence. It was not a tragedy without regret for the failures that occurred.
Remember the helpers.
And perhaps try to understand the human reasons people don’t help.
When and why people don’t help
To dispel the alarming belief that people generally don’t care when they see someone else hurting, it might help to know a few insights from social psychology. There are some things that prevent people from helping even when they sincerely and even urgently want to.
One time on the Skytrain, I witnessed a man verbally harrassing and physically intimidating a couple, and I very much wanted to help, but I didn’t know what to do. I was not confident that I could intervene successfully and without putting myself in danger. A few other people also stood up but seemed unsure. Someone ended up pushing the yellow emergency bar in the end and announcing this to the hostile man. The train stopped at the next station and didn’t proceed until the Skytrain police attended the scene. By then, the harasser had fled.
In another instance, I heard one man verbally abusing another man. He was calling the other man all kinds of insults and bullying him to go back to their apartment. He was speaking in a clearly hostile and insulting way but not uttering any explicit threats. It appeared that the other man was attempting to escape this situation. This was gut-wrenching to witness. Again, I wanted to help this man, but I was unsure of what to do.
I contemplated whether I should call the police. I wasn’t sure. The verbal abuse was obvious, but I didn’t know whether this was a police matter. Furthermore, the threats were not spoken but implied. I have also learned as an adult not to offer help where it is not wanted.
Now I think I should have. But, at the time all I could think to do was stand in clear view of other people down the street, pointedly, obviously watching, with my phone out. I hoped the abusive man would understand the implied threat of being witnessed and having to answer to the police. I think I called out, “I’m watching!” or something like that.
The man took the message, but he said something to the hunched over man like, “you think these people care about you, you piece of shit?” etcetera, etcetera. I took a step forward to communicate that I was staying right there, but I was still confused. The abuser was scary to me too. When the fleeing man stopped and turned around to go with his abuser, I felt crestfallen for him. But I also thought, reluctantly, “I guess this is his choice.” And for all these reasons, I walked away.
Letting the moment pass
I let the critical moment in which I could have done something pass. This still bothers me…. I guess I can take heart from Mr Rogers here. I can find hope in the likelihood that this abused man will encounter other helpers.
The bystander effect
There’s something called the by-stander effect, which was part of the reason some witnesses did nothing while witnessing Kitty Genovese’s murder. It basically aims to explain why people may be unwilling to offer help in situations where there are other witnesses.
As we can see in my examples above, ambiguity can be a real obstacle to helping. A situation is ambiguous when a person doesn’t know what to do or what the consequences of intervening will be. Common consideration are personal harm and social censure for doing something wrong. When people don’t know what to do, they become somewhat paralyzed. In short, they don’t know what actions to take, so they take none. This is not out of a lack of care, but out of confusion. It may also come from a sense of apathy that they can’t make a difference.
Diffusion of responsibility
Then there is this notion of the diffusion of responsibility, in which no one really knows who is responsible. When there are a lot of people around, it is easy to feel no responsibility to take action or to feel personally unimportant in the situation.
(This notion also contributes to mob mentality.)
In one sense, a person doesn’t recognize that perhaps it is them specifically who needs to help. They see themselves only as witnesses and not helpers. It’s like a switch needs to be flipped from one to the other or something. Actually this reminds me of dances. Someone always needs to decide that they are the one(s) who is going to be the first to dance rather than waiting for someone else to do it.
The dark side to diffusion of responsibility
Unfortunately, the consequences can be quite serious. If no one makes this decision to be the first to help, it can create the impression that no one should help. Because no one is helping. This is obviously a logical fallacy, but we are social creatures. We take cues from those around us, and if people are doing or not doing something, it sets a precedent. It may even suggest that there is no emergency, resulting in a sort of collective denial.
The moral of the story is don’t be that guy or that gal or that one or that one either… haha. (More on this in the conclusion.)
Another factor is group cohesiveness. This basically means that if you are witnessing an emergency with strangers, you are less likely to help than if you are witnessing it with people you know and identify with in some way. Social cohesion can provide confidence and reduce anxiety and tension. There is also stronger social pressure to conform to societal norms such as, “we help others who are in need.” The opposite is also true: in the absence of group cohesion, we are less confident and pressed to help.
What would you do?
Be the change you want to see in the world–Mahatma Gandhi
There are things we can do to overcome the bystander effect. According again to research in social psychology, there are several factors that reduce obstacles to helping. Following the principle of creating the change you want to see in the world, in “How to Overcome the Bystander Effect,” Very Well Mind suggests the following will help you (and me) become more reliable helpers:
Witnessing helping behaviour
Researchers have found that when we observe other people engaging in prosocial behaviors, such as donating blood, we are more likely to do the same, according to a study published in 2019.
Staying alert and attuned to your situation, rather than relying purely on the responses of those around you, can help you best decide how to react.
Being skilled and knowledgeable
While you certainly cannot be prepared for every possible event that might transpire, taking first aid classes and receiving CPR training could help you feel more competent and prepared to deal with potential emergencies.
Researchers have found that feelings of guilt can often spur on helping behaviors. So-called “survivor guilt” is just one example. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some people who had survived the event felt driven to help others in the aftermath.
Having a personal relationship
If you are in trouble, single out an individual from the crowd, make eye contact, and directly ask for assistance instead of making a general plea to the group.
Seeing others as deserving of help
Those who believe that homeless people are in their situation due to laziness or unwillingness to work are less likely to give money while those who believe that these individuals are genuinely deserving of help are more likely to provide assistance.
Hearing your favorite song on the radio, enjoying a warm summer day, or successfully completing an important task at work can leave you feeling joyful and competent and more likely to help out another person in need. This is often referred to as the “feel good, do good” effect.
So I guess we should regularly appreciate other helpers and in emergencies pay attention and think for ourselves (don’t be that guy or that gal…). We should educate ourselves. We should perhaps feel a little guilty, but not so guilty as to lose any prosocial good feelings we have. Connecting with people individually may come in handy when we need help ourselves. I imagine connecting individually with a person in need may also motivate us more to help them. Then perhaps we should try to see others needing help with compassion more so than judgment.
For me, it is also important to take from Mr Rogers reminder that there are other people, not just myself, that I can rely on, as both a helper and the helpee. Senses of connectedness and trust are so important to both survive and thrive, to create and appreciate, and to just be in authenticity rather than emergency…
Some real poesy going on there with all those rhymes 😉 .
Taking a moment to do what Mr Rogers would do
One thing Covid-19 has definitely impressed upon me is the true interdependence of our lives. I think I will end this session of deep thought by doing what Mr Rogers would do. In a moment of silence I will recognize and appreciate the people who help me in my life. Both big and small, from my mentors and best friends to the mail carrier and a grocery cashier….
I’ll see you out there at 7 pm with my pots and pans as well 😉 .
Be well and enjoy life, friends.
Artist and human bean