I’ve been thinking a lot about Mister Rogers lately, as I count the days for the release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (three more sleeps!) and generally reflecting on his impact on my life.
Mister Rogers was my first and best minister, my childhood neighbor and friend, my mentor and therapist. If I grab a thread of any of my deeply-held values and unravel it, I’m fairly certain I’d find Mister Rogers holding the ball of yarn. Probably wearing a cardigan and smiling patiently even though I’d just left a ball of yarn in a tangled heap on the floor.
In today’s meme culture, I’m afraid we sometimes reduce Mister Rogers to a caricature of his whole self. I’m afraid we reduce a lot of people to caricatures, for that matter. But in the case of Fred Rogers, we focus almost exclusively on his kindness. And no doubt, he was kind beyond measure. But we forget to tell the part about how he became kind, through a series of daily choices. We forget to talk about how he recognized that humans are, at the end of the day, the measure of their choices. That love, as he once famously said, is an active noun like struggle. He talked about feeling our anger, but also about choosing what to do with the mad we feel. Fred Rogers was no Pollyanna, and he knew we weren’t either. He also knew that we could choose to love one another anyway, in spite of some of our lesser impulses. And that out of that love might grow better impulses.
I am no Mister Rogers. I fall well short most days. I choose cynicism when I’m overwhelmed by our world. I find it hard to forgive adults who behave poorly. I have little patience for adults who make choices out of greed and fear, and even less patience for adults who are cruel or indifferent to children.
If I’m honest (and Mister Rogers wants us to be very honest), my impatience with adults might be part of the reason I choose daily to be in the service of children. It’s an easy choice. The moment I open my eyes, I am greeted by my own kids, the ones entrusted to me to care for and love with unmatched ferocity and acceptance of their unique selves. From there, many days I am lucky to work in classrooms and libraries with children all over my town, and I try to see them all. Really see them. Listen to their stories. Ask them questions. Help them feel seen and appreciated exactly as they are. And on the days I’m not in the classroom, I’m working to craft stories for children, stories where they may find themselves on the page and know that they are not alone in the way they see the world, or in the way their hearts beat out fear and sadness and joy and laughter and everything in between. Other days still, I prioritize children in the places I volunteer and donate money. The truth is, while I find children to be wondrous and delightful, I also find them easier to love and forgive than adults.
But I know Mister Rogers would remind me that adults were once children too. And I’m working on loving them the way I love children, even if it means failing daily, or publicly, or often, both.
I guess I’m sharing all of this to say that I’m forty-one years old, and I’m still learning lessons from a children’s tv show host. And I wonder if maybe we all should.
Either way, I’ll be the one in the front row with a box of tissues this weekend, paying tribute to my favorite neighbor.
I hope it’s a beautiful day in your neighborhood, friend.