I don’t remember watching much of Mister Rogers as a kid. Probably because I was 17 when his show actually first aired. And what I knew of the show didn’t impress me. Too slow, too square, on the edge of corny. Especially for a 17-year old just beginning to grow his hair long and go to Vietnam war protests.
But after watching the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”—and with the help of some 50 years of adulthood—I apologize to Mister Rogers for my cynicism. The man was sincere in a way that is rare in American culture and virtually unknown in any kind of mainstream media. We Americans are great at comedy, especially the kind where we make fun of people. From Saturday Night Live to the Daily Show to Stephen Colbert, from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm, from Robin Williams to Eddie Murphy to Dave Chappelle—all people and shows I genuinely enjoy—we are masters of sarcasm and satire and it helps us get through the outrage of the not-funny reality TV show of government we’re trapped in in the moment.
But we suck as sincerity. The simple, unadorned statement that reminds us to sincerely love each other without fireworks and loud music in the background or a televangelist’s shouting fake charisma or a slickly produced TV-angled production. Mister Rogers was the precise antithesis of all of that and yet it ran for some 33 years on public television and was watched by millions of people. Here was a man that was honest, straightforward and courageous, doing his part to bring sanity and repair a broken world with simple gestures. Like sitting with a black man with both their feet soaking together in a wading pool. No big speeches about social justice or racism, just this simple image that quietly spoke volumes.
If my 17-year old self would have dug a bit deeper behind, I would have discovered that Fred Rogers shared my emerging values in impressive ways. He expressed anti-war sentiments in the first week of his 1968 show, created a character on his show who was a black police officer, became a vegetarian, supported feminist values and more. Most importantly, he knew children, loved children and told them over and over again that each was worthy of love “exactly as they were”—not meaning that they shouldn’t strive to improve, but that they did not need to change themselves to someone else’s image of who they should be or what they should look like. He said it, he meant it, and he devoted his life to representing it.
He looked hard issues straight in the eye, talking with kids in developmentally appropriate ways about the news of the day that included assassinations, war, nuclear arms races, terrorism. He was appalled by the stereotypes and constant violence and overdone slapstick of most children’s television programming and constantly spoke on behalf of children’s deeper needs. In short, though our styles are quite different, he was my kind of guy.
So, Mister Fred Rogers, I apologize for my doubts and cynicism about you and your show and thank you for all you did to try to restore the Creation to its rightful balance. I shudder to imagine you trying to make sense of today’s school shootings and the lunatic government and the NRA and the shameless Wall Street greed and children’s addiction to machines and video games. You might have felt that you failed utterly to carry through your mission. But we need you and your kind more than ever these day. And I hope you know that there are still many among us who are trying to move your message forward.
If I meet you in the other world, I would politely ask, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
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