There’s a famous Mr. Rogers’ quote, that I’m sure everyone knows:
“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.'”
Those words have always filled me with hope as I’ve watched the news and read about the earthquakes, hurricanes, oil spills, bombs, drone strikes, church-shootings, school shootings, and hate. Everywhere we look, in times of disaster, we can see the helpers. It’s uplifting and beautiful. But then, our passive gratification spent, we move on. We look away.
And oh, is it tempting here, at the start of a new year, to look away from the injustices that are happening right now. We say it’s for self-preservation. Current events are too stressful and too depressing. We are too emotionally spent from the political assault of 2016 to focus on politics.
This desire to protect our emotional well-being, to focus on self-preservation, is human. But it is a luxury that few can afford. We can, and should, look back at the beautiful things that happened this past year, but we should also remember that our comfort is not shared. In this city, in this country and on this planet, mothers are left childless, children orphaned, schools bombed, and lakes relied on for sustenance poisoned – right now – while we look away.
Last week, a man died in my city. A homeless man. People walked by, not realizing that the bundled human being sleeping on the sidewalk was dying – or already dead. And tragically, he was not the first and will not be the last. Since January 1st, four people have died of exposure in this, my city of roses. David Guyot. Mark Eliot Johnson. Karen Lee Batts. And last night, a man who has a name, but it is not yet known.
My five-year-old daughter tells me, with all the wistful hope of youth, that when she grows up, she will make lots of money and make sure that everyone has food and everyone has a home, because “that’s just what’s right.” I’ve patted her head and told her that I can’t wait to see all the things she will do when she grows up, all the while fighting the lurch in my stomach. Because she’s right. How is it possible that in a moral society, in the self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth”, that on a single night in January of last year, 549,928 human beings were homeless?
It’s easy to pretend that homelessness is an unfixable problem, but it’s not. There are solutions that have data to support their efficacy. The solution for ending chronic homelessness, as outlined by both the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and The National Alliance to End Homelessness, is to provide permanent supportive housing. It is more cost-effective and is better for the community at-large.
But to find solutions to homelessness, to find a way to “fix” the countless things that are broken in our communities, our cities, our states, and our nation, we have to commit to examining the realities that have led us to this place. And we have to be willing to ask, every time we are confronted with an image that fills us with sadness: “What can I do to make this stop?”
Shunning the news or those pictures won’t make those horrors go away. It won’t make the farmers’ bodies whole, who were ruthlessly bombed in the U.S. backed Saudi-coalition’s war in Yemen. A war which has targeted the country’s agricultural sector, and has left over half the country starving. Not looking won’t put food in the bellies of the starving Yemeni children. It won’t make our country stop supporting dictators, or supporting and providing training and weapons to jihadist movements, including ISIL and Al Qaeda.
To fix these things, we have to be willing to look that anguish in the face, we have to embrace the horrors that we thought would ravish our souls, and we have to find our way to accepting the simple truth – this is the way the world is.
So in this new year, I ask only this: Don’t look away. Look. Look hard. And when you’ve let yourself examine everything you thought you knew without anger, without fear, without despair, without prejudice, and – when you’ve found a way back to yourself – look some more. Then find a way to help.
There are always helpers, as Mr. Rogers said, but in this age, we must cease to simply look for helpers. We must all be helpers.