I just went to see the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers, the man who created the show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in Pittsburgh in 1967. As a child of the 70s, I watched Mr. Rogers growing up. His show was particularly appealing before I went to school. The documentary made me like him even more. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he truly attempted to live a Christian life and to help every child feel important, loved, hopeful, and safe. Documentarian Morgan Neville said this about making the movie:
“I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness. Fred’s message, when I distill it, he talked about grace. It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: It is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”
Fred Rogers believed that we needed to talk about things and our feelings, to be vulnerable and fallible, and to acknowledge reality. He wasn’t Pollyanna-ish, even though his message was hopeful.
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” Fred Rogers
Here are a few of the great things about his approach from the documentary:
- He addressed timely issues like the Vietnam war, racism, death (a whole week on death!), feeling sad or lonely, bullying, and even came back to do a show about 9/11 which made even Fred Rogers feel nearly hopeless. Although he was a lifelong registered Republican, he was quite progressive in his views.
- He was concerned about the violence and mean-spirited or undignified way people were portrayed in television, especially for children. He hated the pie in the face humor that was a trope at the time. He noted that it never really got better. The pace of it was also so fast and included advertising to make children consumers which he found troubling. He felt children should have space to use their minds, not just see a blur of activity. He deliberately inserted slow pace and silence into his show. One episode he set a timer for one minute so they could experience a full minute of silence and stillness. Now that’s riveting children’s programming! In another episode, he shows a pet turtle walking slowly.
- Officer Clemmons was a black character on the show and one of Fred’s close friends in life. He was also gay. Although Fred was concerned about “the gay lifestyle” early on in the show, he came to realize that his friend was not gay by choice, and he loved and supported him as he was. At times, right-wing protesters jeered at Fred Rogers with smears about homosexuality. Some wondered if they were saying that he was gay because he was so gentle and soft-spoken, but they were protesting his support of gay people, his tolerance. He also set an example of how to be a man that contradicted the macho ideal, showing that you can be gentle and loving and protective of others.
- He said he always imagined he was talking to just one child when he was taping his show. Through this approach, each child watching felt like he was speaking just to them. He reminded me of kindly older neighbors I met who would let me come by and visit and had a bowl of candy.
- He believed that children feel emotions just as strongly as adults, and that we do them a disservice when we don’t talk about things like anger, death, or sadness. He wanted to create a space for children to know that their feelings were OK, and that they were loved just for who they are.
One thing I found fascinating was the audience reaction to this movie. We went to see it on a Saturday matinee, not opening weekend, and the theater was packed. I was surprised. During the show, audience members gasped, whispered excitedly, laughed out loud, murmured about things that surprised them. It was really different than I expected, and for some reason, like the TV show, this movie just really resonated with people. Looking at the ages of those around me, it seemed likely that many of them were also people who watched Mr. Rogers as a child. The director, Morgan Neville said something similar to what I observed:
“The funny thing is how many different people have come to me with different triggers,” he said. “People say, ‘Of course the trigger is this scene.’ There’s 20 different moments in the film. It’s a reflection of us, who are you and what are you bringing to it? What is your trigger? What I’ve come to realize is that Fred’s superpower was this penetrating emotional honesty and this ability to find one’s emotional bullseye. And ultimately if you’re trying to keep your adult defenses up, he’s going to penetrate those defenses. Your emotional bullseye is going to get hit at some point during the film.”
This movie was incredibly timely. The director said he wrote it in three parts: Fred Rogers’ original vision, defending that vision (when the government threatened to pull funding from PBS), and then trying to figure out over time whether that vision was really optimal. The tension was between Fred’s internal state and the world around him. It’s an emotional conflict, one that we all share ultimately. It’s a movie for our time. It’s a movie in which kindness and love are at the center of human relationships, in which personal connection is valued with space to think, reflect, listen, and care for others. In response to the word of mouth about this film, distribution president Lisa Bunnell noted:
“We have found that the public has embraced the film as a cathartic way to deal with the world that we live in now. It gives them hope and inspires them to be a good ‘neighbor.’”
On a flight a few weeks ago, I watched the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a movie that is on the surface about as different from Won’t You Be My Neighbor as you can get. In the movie, Woody Harrelson plays a patient and mostly decent sheriff and Sam Rockwell is a racist, homophobic, angry, intolerant, not-very-smart cop in a small backwards town–but he looks up to the sheriff as a father figure. The sheriff tells him that he believes there is good deep in his heart, and that he wants him to know that the key to being a detective is . . . love. He says he knows that sounds strange, but that the reason love is the key is that love provides calm, and only when you are calm can you really listen to others. Without listening to others, without having that calm and quiet, you will never hear the information that will tell you the truth of situations and people. So the key is love which leads to calm which leads to listening which leads to an accurate view of things.
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Fred Rogers
I posted last week about the inaccurate view members of both political parties have of each other right now, and that 40% of party members are primarily in that party because they oppose the other one, not because they believe in their own party. There have been calls for civility in our hostile climate of political discussions, but I don’t believe that’s what Fred Rogers or the Three Billboards movie are saying. Asking for “civility” without focusing on listening feels hollow.
“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.” Fred Rogers
He advocated for courage and strength, not aggression.
“Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength and other words–like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess.”
The point isn’t that we should be polite, even when we disagree. Fred Rogers was opposed to avoiding having a real conversation with children or adults. He talked about feelings–his own and others’–and was genuine; he didn’t mask negative feelings with “please” and “thank you.” He said it was OK to be angry, scared or sad by events in the world or by things that were happening. He said it gently and patiently and relentlessly. Fred Rogers said everything boiled down to love: love for others and love for self.
“When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.” Fred Rogers
He was a quiet revolutionary.