Mr. Rogers, we need you now more than ever.
I watched the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor earlier this week, and it has stuck with me in a way few films ever have. In several places in the film I found myself on the verge of tears—and by the end, the entire theater left crying.
The depth and consistency of this man and his mission were staggering. The messages and metaphors he spent his life bringing to children are seldom discussed among adults in such a meaningful way. Without spoiling the moments of the movie (please see at once), we are talking about a kids show led with an old sock puppet and cardboard castle set that dealt with race, animal rights, being disabled, honesty, patience, kindness, community, and even death. Yes, death. On a children’s show. Most of us adults are terrified to take on death in any meaningful way. I think it’s why we create all the noise around us that drowns out the very preciousness of the time we have here.
As pointed out in the film, someone like Mr. Rogers might not have made it onto the screen today. Too much has happened. We are too scared of one another now, too cynical. We would probably find him too simple (that, of course, was the surface). We might find it creepy that he talked slow and childlike (despite his mind working at 2000 rpm). He would probably seem too patient, too focused on kids to let him be around our kids—and this is the mess we are in, folks.
Any child with an unlocked phone can see more violence and pornography in a day than a couple generations ago one could see in a year. I’m not a prude, but by having everything at our fingertips, the responsibility we have to educate our children is as important as ever. It’s not about shutting out the world (this is the work of fundamentalists, who always deal in fear), but it’s about teaching kids how to deal with their emotions, how to deal with their fear and anger, how to live and think for themselves—which is going to be the real commodity as the old guard continues to fall.
Watching Mr. Rogers’ work again, after all this time, also reminded me that as far as we’ve come, we haven’t really moved an inch. We’ve got every channel, every song, TV show, and movie ever made inside our pockets, but are we happier? Are we doing any better? A 24-hour news cycle, more information than anyone could ever process, every atrocity brought right to our doorsteps, but do we go out and solve these problems, speak to one another, serve our neighborhoods, vote? Speak out? Or do we get mired in compassion fatigue and fill our neighborhoods with gates, walls, and cruel laws, forgetting to understand or learn from one another. Forgetting to build the neighborhood.
A child’s viewpoint might be exactly what we need. Almost every problem we have can be reduced to a few questions, questions that, it seems to me, Fred Rogers spent his entire life (and 912 episodes) asking—Are we being kind? Are we being patient? Are we being loving? Just to read these questions might ring a loud bell of cynicism inside you, but imagine this world if we all spent a little more time asking these questions versus buying and selling, accumulating, fighting, trying to prove we are right, judging one another, waiting for others to tell us we have value, running from here to there as fast as we possibly can in hopes we aren’t left with the quiet of knowing none of these external forces are ever gonna be enough.
Rogers did all this without hammering on about religion/politics or his own childhood. It was always about the kids, not him. He was a minister who never ever preached from inside the show. (Actually, he did preach, but only the biggest, most important doctrine of all, the one that all of us religious and nonreligious should start and end with: LOVE.)
We could easily take all of this into a religious or philosophical argument, recite academia, pour over a million books looking for an answer no two people will ever perfectly agree upon—or we can spend our time asking simpler, more childlike questions. How can we show kindness to ourselves, other people, animals, to this planet? Again, how can we build the neighborhood? We don’t have to agree perfectly with a specific church to do that.
There are plenty of people walking the face of the earth with this fire of kindness and simplicity that Fred Rogers held in his heart. But this fire seldom leads the way we teach our children. My hope is that those in control of the media and educational system give more of these people a chance, and if we are to decentralize the power of media/Hollywood/gatekeepers, if we are to disrupt all of it, we have a huge personal responsibility to find it in our hearts to help young people learn the fundamental compassion that keeps us from tearing each other apart.
We could use a few hundred Mr. Rogers in places of power right now, and I think it would set the world right faster than we could imagine. And maybe this is the beauty of it and why I was so affected by this film—how can being kind and standing for LOVE fight the seemingly endless evil in this world? It’s all that ever has, and it can and it must.
Thanks for visiting. See you out in the neighborhood.
- Brilliant Esquire article on Rogers (thanks, Jim Willcox): https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/.
- Brilliant address to Congress (thanks, Carter Hulsey): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9uIJ-o2yqQ. “What do you do with the mad that you feel? … If we can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health… I think it’s much more dramatic showing two men working out their anger than showing something of gunfire…”
- I have included a quick piece of music I wrote after seeing the film. It’s called “143”: http://goodingmusic.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/143.mp3. After you see the movie, that number will make perfect sense. 🙂
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