After the senseless calamity of a mass shooting, people seek comforts—even small ones—in the face of horror. One of those small comforts has come to be Fred Rogers’s famous advice to look for the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Lately, whenever something goes horribly wrong, someone offers up Rogers’s phrase or a video in which he shares it as succor: during the Thai cave rescue, in response to the U.S. family-separation policy, after a school-bus accident in New Jersey, following a fatal explosion in Wisconsin, in the aftermath of a van attack in Toronto, in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas school massacre, and more.
And so it was no surprise when “Look for the helpers” reared its head again after a gunman killed 11 people and wounded six others in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Not just because the shooting marked another tragedy in America, but also because Rogers, who died in 2003, was a longtime resident of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the synagogue is located. It’s as if all the other crimes and accidents in which Fred Rogers has been invoked were rehearsing for this one. “A Massacre in the Heart of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” reads the headline of Bari Weiss’s New York Times column on the slaughter.
Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.