We need you Mister Rogers?
by Russell Ray
In a world of deepening political, racial and generational divide, a movie about Fred Rogers, the man who preached love, kindness and understanding on a television show that reached millions of children, is the reminder we all need to see each other as neighbors, not adversaries.
We need the teachings of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” – the TV show that lived more than 30 years on nearly 400 PBS stations – now more than ever.
For me, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks was unexpectedly powerful. It translated the lessons of the iconic children’s show to today’s big screen, challenging adults to revisit the lessons Rogers invoked to us as children and applying those virtues to social discourse today.
What would Mr. Rogers say about today’s world, where mass shootings are commonplace, bathrooms have become battlefields over gender and conflicts over racial ideology has led to a venomous divide between political, cultural and economic ideals created by fundamental disagreements over values.
In this deeply polarized world of self-righteous, black and white, red and blue, right and wrong agendas, it’s hard to imagine the unconditional kindness of Fred Rogers conquering the vitriol tone of discourse we see on television news, in the halls of Congress and on social media networks.
But Rogers’ ability to show real compassion, understand the struggles of others and find the best in people would no doubt foster greater tolerance and acceptance of competing thoughts.
As an adult, I have a greater appreciation for the teachings of Mister Rogers. Regrettably, I didn’t much care for the show that explored feelings with hokey-looking puppets and corny songs. As a tike, the slapstick comedy of “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Andy Griffith Show” were much more entertaining after-school shows to watch.
But the movie reminded me how great and inspiring Rogers was for so many people, especially children. He took on difficult topics like death, divorce and war, helping children understand and cope with feelings.
Today, perhaps, Rogers’ soft and kind approach might be described as weak. Although Rogers’ approach was designed for children, it is the medicine our culture needs to cure the vitriolic, confrontational and childish discourse of today.
The movie hit home in another way.
It centers on Rogers’ relationship with Lloyd Vogel, a character based on real-life journalist Tom Junod. Junod was a cynical reporter assigned to write a 500-word profile on Rogers for Esquire magazine. At the time, Junod was in the middle of a long rift with his father. Through Rogers, Junod learned to forgive his father and deal with the pain and anger he was feeling. He ended up writing several thousand words on Rogers, and the article was featured as the cover story for the November 1998 issue of Esquire.
I saw myself in Vogel, a journalist who had built a reputation as a tough and cynical (I prefer skeptical) reporter who looked at issues with a critical eye. I think that’s why the movie stood out to me. It was a reminder of my own struggles to be more kind, compassionate, understanding and forgiving.
Rogers wasn’t a saint and he wasn’t flawless. He had flawed relationships and experienced anger and frustrations, like all of us do. Rogers managed his frustrations with compassion and understanding, instead of lashing out with hyperbolic and vitriolic temper tantrums.
Rogers always worked hard to understand the struggles of others. He listened, accepted people for who they were and rarely argued. The power of his style and approach is greatly underestimated.
Applying Rogers’ lessons to the political, social and cultural disagreements of today will be difficult. But I can’t think of a better way to begin the New year.