Fred Rogers famously shared his mother’s advice to look to the helpers. “Especially in times of disaster,” he said, “I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” This is part of our basic nature. Human beings were created for community; we evolved in community. We have from the very beginning lived in families, clans, and neighborhoods, and for this to function, we are, by our nature, helpers.
And yet, for the time being, social distancing is necessary. In the midst of this, we must remember that even as we cancel large-group gatherings, we are still neighbors, so that social distancing does not become isolation.
Isolation is one of America’s great pitfalls. Our national myth portrays self-sufficient rugged individualists, and the “self-made man.” Regardless of their veracity, these myths can exacerbate people’s tendency to isolation and selfishness. We’ve seen evidence of this in store shelves emptied of soap and toilet paper, as the reasonable motivation to be prepared festers into the compulsion to hoard. At the same time, the fear of crowds may cause us to cut off community interaction entirely, leading to a level of isolation that fosters depression, addictions and a wide range of mental, emotional and spiritual darkness. Its understandable: The pandemic is moving quickly, and each day we are faced with new realities and recommendations, with national leadership that has been slow and inconsistent. This creates feelings of fear and anxiety, and one response is to withdraw into our turtle shells instead of looking out to help others.
But here’s the good news: We are a complicated species within whom fear and compassion both reside, and compassion wins, time and time again. Our fears exploded on Sept. 11, 2001, but within minutes, brave women and men responded with courage and compassion. Our souls shook with the earth on Nov. 30, 2018, but within minutes, we were checking on neighbors, offering help and sharing resources. Similarly, our anxiety is now on high alert with the spread of the coronavirus, but within minutes of the declaration of the state of emergency, our church was flooded with people offering to help others, and online groups were forming for the explicit purpose of serving and caring for neighbors near and far. People were opening homes to stranded travelers, and neighbors were reaching out to neighbors to offer care for each others’ children while schools remain closed. “There are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Social distancing is necessary for a reason, but continued social connection will not only survive, it will be what sees us through and defines as as who we hope to be. To that end, it is important that we all call on our neighbors to see what they need. They may be immunocompromised or otherwise unable to make it out for the necessities. They may simply need to hear a voice of someone they know, to be reminded that they are still socially connected; that despite the physical distance, we are all in this together.
The parable of the good Samaritan reminds us that all people are our neighbors, and that the defining characteristic of being a good neighbor is to show compassion. Alaskans have shown that we can choose “the better angels of our nature,” look out for our neighbors, and care for the vulnerable. With examples of compassion in the face of pandemic already emerging, we are reminded that we are all each others’ neighbors. And it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Rev. Matt Schultz, an Anchorage pastor, is on the steering committee for Christians for Equality.
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