Won’t You Be My Neighbor by George Merrill

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I’ve been around and on the water most of my life. I was born on an island, vacationed on another. Now I live on the Eastern Shore that is surrounded by water and for all practical purposes, is an island.

I’ve been seasick twice. The first time was crossing the English Channel from the Hook of Holland to Dover and the other sailing off Tortola in the Virgin Islands. Being seasick is a miserable experience. You think you’ll die and at times, wish you would.

A seasoned sailor once told me that the best way to stave off seasickness is to keep your eyes fixed on the horizon. As tumultuous as the sea can get, the horizon will appear steady and affords a stabilizing orientation that helps to make us feel balanced when everything around us is heaving.

I think of the socio-political climate I live in today as heaving. I feel tossed this way and that. It’s as if I spend my days trying to stave off the queasiness that frequently arises in my stomach when I look at my country and a world that seems to be going mad. It’s as if we were on a ship with a malfunctioning compass, a contentious crew and an ailing captain. We’re sailing under a cloudy sky that occludes the sun or stars so we can’t orient ourselves. I sometimes feel frightened, uncertain, lost.

As I write this, next to me sits a copy of The Week magazine. Like many magazines, the last page (The Last Word, this magazine calls it) offers reflective columns that deal with human-interest issues. The October 20th edition ran a piece on Mr. Rogers of the famous Mr. Rogers Neighborhood series that first ran on television in 1968. A picture of Mr. Rogers accompanies the article. He’s in his cardigan sweater, seated, smiling, as he puts on his sneakers. Rogers radiated an aura of benevolence that was infectious and from all accounts he was in real life the same kind, gentle, and caring man, as he appeared to be in his programs. He is an example of how character counts and how it can make all the difference in the lives of others. He had been a part of that horizon we seek as the world pitches and roils around us.

When I first saw the column I wondered, why now? Rogers died in 2003 and, although his program was shown for some years after his death, I assumed that he had become more like an old attic piece that may once have been loved and treasured and then wound up tucked away and forgotten. His reemergence is prophetic.

Prior to seeing this recent article, Mr. Rogers first came to my attention at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The horror of that senseless slaughter rippled through the country and it was front-page news for weeks.

At that time someone posted one of Mr. Roger’s comments online, a comment made years before on one of his programs. In his skillful way, he was discussing with his television neighborhood how when scary things happen and we feel all alone, it is not the end of our world. “My mother would say to me,” he told the children, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, 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 the world.”

The post reportedly went viral. It must have generated interest for millions in the country. The comment captured the national imagination. I believe it spoke to a deep need and a national hunger. It was an inspired statement from a man long gone, a statement recalled in the fullness of time, as if, as they say of angels, that the wounded and needy were being ministered to by messengers of God. America is facing ugly and scary things. We are reminded that there are helpers, people who are there for us in the darkest hours to aid and comfort us.

I remember at the time of the bombing there was a lot of television coverage focusing on people who suddenly appeared from nowhere to be available and help. One physician – perhaps participating in the marathon, ran to the hospital to make himself available to the wounded.

Anthony Breznican, the author of The Week article, recalled Rogers speaking those words of assurance when he had been a boy. Years later he found solace in those words as he struggled through personal crises of his own in adulthood.

I was curious that the journalist would write about Mr. Rogers now in the present atmosphere where threats of nuclear war and the mass shootings are the norm. We’re not having wonderful days in the neighborhood. There’s the bellicose rhetoric coming regularly from Washington. The recollection of Mr. Rogers was as if Breznican looked at the distant horizon and saw the person of Fred Rogers, and he felt calmed in the storm.

Loving-kindness will orient us in tumultuous times. Caring gets easily eclipsed in the tempests roiling in our world today. I suspect Mr. Rogers is speaking to his neighbors again, a voice beyond the grave, pointing us to the horizon of hope and comfort, the way prophets’ voices once spoke to a people who’d lost their way.

His message is as eternal as it is simple:

“To this day, especially in times of disaster, 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 the world.”

There are a lot of good people left in our neighborhood.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Elizabeth Freedlander says:

    George,
    Thank you for reminding us to recognize all the helpers that we really do experience. It makes me reflect that so many of us have become glued to news of the fractious people in Washington and make them out to be our whole world. I am not suggesting that they do not have power but perhaps they are more colorfully addictive and actually less representative of most of us who live within community and kindly connection. I am surely not the only one who is rethinking the kind of people we want in Congress and in the Oval Office. We might want to look for helpers.

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