Dear Holy Cross family,
I ran across his story, and hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.
Seven Reasons Why We Need Mister Rogers More Than Ever
JUNE 6, 2018 BY PAUL ASAY
On Feb. 2, 1968—Groundhog Day—Simon & Garfunkel recorded the final version of their classic song “Mrs. Robinson” for their album Bookends. It includes one of the most poignant lines in all of pop music:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
“I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply,” Paul Simon later told The New York Times. And indeed, in early 1968, they were. The country was mired in the Vietnam War. Protests raged at home. The country had never felt so divided, so angry. After the heroics of World War II and the unbridled American self-confidence of the 1950s, the United States must’ve felt like a stick bent to its breaking point, ready to splinter.
The country needed a hero.
On Feb. 19, 1968, just 17 days after Simon & Garfunkel put Mrs. Robinson in Bookends, it got one. Most folks didn’t know it yet, of course. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, featuring a rather un-telegenic, soft-spoken minister as its host, director, singer, writer and puppeteer, was meant for kids too young to tie their shoes, much less write think-pieces for The New Yorker. But as Focus Features’ new, wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor illustrates, he was a good hero for those turbulent times. And, I think, the sort of hero we need more than ever.
Fred Rogers wasn’t a television novice when he launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on NET (the forerunner to PBS) in 1968. He’d worked on a show called The Children’s Corner for Pittsburgh’s WQED years before, introducing Daniel Tiger when (according to the movie) one of the live show’s ancient film clips broke. But if Daniel’s introduction to the world of television was a spontaneous thing, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was anything but. As Neighbor unpacks for us, Rogers carefully thought through every word and lyric, almost every moment, crafting a show that would never talk down to its young viewers but wrap an arm around them and talk to them. Rogers called the space between his cameras and his viewers’ televisions “holy ground,” and indeed something sacrosanct took place there.
When you contrast what Mister Rogers did back then with our own frenetic entertainment culture—heck, with our entire national climate—it’s striking to see the difference, and feel just what we’re lacking. Consider:
He was quiet. “For Fred, silence was his delight,” we’re told in Neighbor. We’re treated to a montage of some of the many times that he stopped talking and just let his audience … listen.
Most folks would call that “dead air,” back then as they would now. Today, to sit in silence is practically a cultural sin. We bring our phones and devices of distraction with us wherever we go, even into the toilet stall. I do, too. It’s like we can’t stand to be alone with ourselves. To grow quiet. To think. Rogers reminds us that when we lose silence, we lose much more. We lose, maybe, a bit of ourselves.
He listened. This might be one of the most remarkable things I was struck with watching Neighbor: How well he listened to those around him—no matter how young they were, no matter what they said. Children might tell him something funny. Or tragic. Or profound. He treated each missive as a gift—an almost sacred message, from one child of God to another.
I used to think of myself as a good listener. I’m not so sure anymore. I “talk” for a living, here and elsewhere. And sometimes, even when I’m listening even to the people most precious in my life, I feel my attention wander. I can feel my eyes darting, looking for the next distraction; search the conversation for another opportunity to let folks know what I think. How many times have I lost an opportunity to listen and learn? How many moments have I lost to create a greater connection? More broadly, how many of our societal ills and angsts could be treated and even healed through just … listening? I think we’d be surprised.
He was gentle, but strong. In Neighbor, we see scenes aplenty when Rogers’ famous gentleness was mocked and lampooned. And indeed, his ultra-sincere persona and curious, almost lyrical-sounding voice can foster a very Rogers-esque stereotype of a milquetoast man. Truth is, he was anything but. He stood for things and, once he found his footing, never wavered from them. He stared down Congress. He fought for racial equality. The very first week Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on the air, according to Neighbor, Rogers tackled the Vietnam War.
Today, we see politicians and pundits bluster and blow like big, bad wolves—huffing and puffing, bellowing and retracting what they just bellowed. Rogers did Theodore Roosevelt one better: He spoke quietly, and instead of carrying a stick, he bore only his convictions. And so often, they were enough.
He was real. We’ve witnessed a lot of heroes fall lately. TV stars, politicians, even religious leaders have illustrated how wide the gap can be between a public persona and who a person is, deep down.
We all have inconsistencies to our characters, of course. We sin. We fail. We think or say or do things we should not. All of us do. Even, I’m sure, Mister Rogers. But everything I’ve read about him—and what I see in Neighbor—suggests that Rogers was as true to, and as honest with, himself, and thus to his audience, as anyone can be. He didn’t just pretend to listen: He listened. He didn’t just pretend to care: He cared. Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers illustrates that really well, and it might be one of the best profiles I’ve ever read. (caution, though. It can be profane at times.)
He was vulnerable (in a way). Neighbor makes the case that Mr. Rogers’ puppet alter-ego was the watch-wearing Daniel Striped Tiger—sweet, shy and deeply vulnerable. Rogers admits in the movie that it’s far easier to let Daniel express his fears than he, as a grown man, to admit to them. But he, unlike most of us, still admits to them. And through Daniel, he gave the children he spoke to permission to express their own fears and doubts.
Funny that, in our social media age where we all share so much of ourselves, rarely do we share our vulnerability. We post our smiling vacation pictures and brag about our kids and express our deep political convictions in sometimes strident, shrill terms. But I think that often it’s our vulnerabilities, not our strengths, that make people gravitate toward us and allow them to trust us. I think that that’s part of what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 12, when he told us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Rogers’ knew that, too. Our weaknesses open the door to fellowship. And that’s where strength is found.
He was devout. Rogers was an ordained minister, and throughout Neighbor we hear how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was his pulpit. He preached from his fake television house and told his young viewers that they were loved just as they were—but they still needed to learn and grow, too. And that brings us to, perhaps, Rogers’ most powerful, enduring message.
He believed in us all. That feels like a strong statement, but I don’t think it’s a stretch. Rogers believed in us all. He believed that all of us—young and old—were worthy of love. We were lovable.
Love is at the root of everything,” he says in the film. “All learning, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it.”
Neighbor tells us that some of his critics took Rogers’ message of self-love and self-acceptance as his license to coddle a generation. They equate Rogers’ open-handedness to a baseball game where no one keeps score.
But Junlei Li, a professor of psychology and human development and co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, says that Rogers was simply expressing—embracing—a cornerstone of Christian belief: “You are the beloved son or daughter of God.”
God loves His children unconditionally. He loves them, in Rogers’ own words, just the way we are. That doesn’t mean we should stop learning and growing, any more than Rogers’ thought his young viewers would be better off without learning to read or count or tie their shoes. We can always be better. We can, and should, always improve, as much as our skills and gifts allow us to. But it’s not a condition of God’s love. That love is constant—more than the sun or moon or stars.
Mister Rogers showed us what that love looks like. He shaped countless children who can, and perhaps should, speak into a world that very much needs Rogers-like wisdom.
Fred Rogers died in 2003. He never knew a world with Facebook or the iPhone, with ISIS or the #MeToo movement or Donald Trump as President.
But as Won’t You Be My Neighbor suggests, Rogers—his wisdom, his heart, his gentle bravery—is very much needed in this world of ours. Our nation turns its lonely eyes to him.
Even though he’s gone, Rogers gave many of us some powerful, beautiful lessons. And maybe it’s up to us to now be the heroes that he taught us to be.