Today is the birthday of Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers was born into heaven February 27, 2003 after a battle with stomach cancer. I know he is often easily caricatured and dismissed, but he’s honestly a hero of mine; both the television and the real-life version, to the extent I know of him.
This is a blog I wrote in 2007, and I still like it.
I’m in a phase of life where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is the most consistent TV viewing I’m doing. So I have a lot of time to think about it.
Somebody submitted a Postsecret card a few weeks ago that was a Mr. Rogers postcard with a message like, “You didn’t prepare me for how cruel the world could be.” I’ve been thinking about this. I realize that there is some legitimate concern about Rogers’ emphasis on self-esteem, his (Carl) Rogerian, therapeutic approach to people’s specialness and feelings, and sense that the way he suggests viewing yourself and others is just not realistic. Especially for a man of his age – a sentiment behind a lot of folks’ judgment that Mr. Rogers is just a little creepy. But I disagree.
What I’ve noticed about Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood is that it is filled with the most gifted people on the planet – Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Pearlman, Wynton Marsalis, to name a few – and shoe salesmen, and Special Olympians, and a full range of people, tasks, and social roles, each of which Mr. Rogers treats with complete attention, sincere admiration, great curiosity, and tremendous appreciation.
In the “real world” segments of Mr. Rogers’ visits with his neighbors, he is very eager to learn all he can about how these people came to be interested in what they are doing, the kind of discipline required to learn and enjoy their work, and the way they feel about it. He is very grateful for the work they do and the person they are, whatever and whoever that is. He often offers more deference to those whose challenges have been greater, even beyond some of the world-renowned artists he visits. It is a neighborhood where brilliant artists and differently-abled persons are equally real, worthy, and capable of being known and loved.
Mr. Rogers is very careful to always say that, in watching short films about the use of construction equipment, or making of graham crackers, that this is how people accomplish this or that task – here is the person who makes the machine run, here is the person whose job is making sure the apples are good, here is the woman or man whose invaluable vocation leads to the everyday things in your life. The weight Rogers puts on the things people do and the inherent worth of those people is subversive to the way the world is usually portrayed.
The cruelty or unfairness the show addresses takes place almost entirely in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Here, the King can be arbitrary or stubborn, the factory manager is probably a workaholic, Lady Elaine is often unpleasant and selfish, Ex the Owl is gullible and often fooled, Daniel Tiger is shy, insecure, and family-less, Robert Troll is pretty much the lovable village buffoon. Prince Tuesday is the epitome of resentful, self-absorbed, adolescent entitlement, and just as beloved as Daniel Tiger.
Here, these flawed characters meet weekly crises that take several days to resolve: a missing pet or personal belonging, a budget compromise for a community project, responding to a visitor speaking an unknown language. Between the characters’ work to process the situation and Mr. Rogers’ help interpreting the feelings and decisions being made, a lot of real world anxieties are addressed with responsible, redemptive responses.
In the midst of this, there are songs articulating what it means to be human and account for the fear, disappointment, anger, wonder, and need for belonging that we share. They are repeated in different programs and with different promptings, becoming familiar over time and applicable to different circumstances and feelings. These songs express the truth that people are made differently, that things don’t always turn out as we hope, that we all have difficult feelings; and, that people are special, disappointment is not the whole of life, and feelings can be expressed without bringing harm to yourself or others.
The more I watch, the more impressed I am with how this is all put together. There is very little moralizing – most of the values of the show come out in narrative and in shared experiences listening to and asking questions of others.
Mr. Rogers doesn’t say, “you must always be responsible for your things,” every week; he just makes sure to feed the fish every day and cleans up after himself. He doesn’t say, “you shouldn’t make fun of people with disabilities;” he just goes swimming with his paraplegic friend, and talks about how capable, graceful and dedicated he is. People of different races, abilities, nationalities, ages, economic situations are received with so much grace.
It is “educational” in such a broad and inventive way. I am always impressed with what my child is being exposed to through this: art, culture, music (including the constant underlying jazz piano of John Costa), and variety and diversity of life experiences, ways of living and of making a living. And Rogers is always very up-front about the fact that this is television – it is not entirely real, even though it may be entirely true.
I have rarely read anything specifically addressing Rogers’ personal faith, although I know he was ordained to the work he did in children’s programming. The one time I’ve seen something take place that specifically referenced God was a song sung in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe (how can you attack that? it’s already make-believe). Daniel Tiger expresses some question of how we are here in the world, and who made us and why. Lady Aberlin responds something like, “Well, I can tell you what I think,” and, to my surprise, sings that God made all these things, and closes, “and made us, and made us want to know.” I loved that. The song is sung again with “love” in the place of “God,” which has shaped the way I’ve heard many of Rogers’ songs about love ever since.
There was a recent episode where Mr. McFeely had brought Mr. Rogers a fig bar, and they’d watched a film about how people make them. At the end, (Reverend Fred) Rogers takes the cookie in two hands, looks at us with his usual gentle, welcoming smile, breaks it in two, and extends his hands towards us. He says he wishes he could share it with us, and how good it feels to share with friends. It was a better communion meditation than many I’ve heard. The fig bar of Christ, broken for you.
I think Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is an example of brilliant liturgy. In an ideal liturgy, real human experience should encounter real truth. We tell the stories of our community, and the stories of our Tradition, our Scriptures, with the honesty that shows we understand the crises and failings of ourselves and these saints, but also understand the redemptive potential of God’s grace in our and their stories. We, then, may live out of this intersection of life and truth (love) to an extent that it is not our moralizing, but our slowly transforming lives, that display the impact of the gospel in our world. The proclamation of the word, and the recognition of the Word among us, must be embodied in ways that interpret our lives and our world, as they really are, without dampening the radicality of God’s life among and through us.
If the church has not prepared us for the cruelty and disappointments of life in the world, it may be that we have not honestly come to meet Jesus together at his Table, where the broken and gifted, proud and humbled, wounded and whole, wise and foolish, sincere and deceitful all gather to receive and be changed by the mercy of God.
A patient, slow-spoken, enthusiastic and welcoming person might capture and keep the trust, attention and imagination of a child. I pray that we may be a body that gives as much creative, intentional care to the way we communicate with those God has called us to love, and that our stories, songs and scripted interaction match our daily speech and action. There is no doubt that the gospel lived out subverts every assumption about how the world really works. Hopefully, as we gather to worship, we see the world as it truly is, and develop the redemptive imagination to bear with those who suffer its cruelty.