My friend Nate and I recently went to see the movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? If you haven’t heard of the film, it’s a documentary on Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers). Nate and I both grew up watching Mr. Rogers on television, and we wanted to take a nostalgic and sentimental trip down memory lane. The movie was that—and so much more.
I was surprised how emotional I felt when I heard the theme song—“… would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”—and saw Rogers take off his suit jacket (forgot this!) to put on one of his many cardigans. There was a shoe change too, and puppets. How could I forget the puppets? Or the trolley? But I had. Until I saw them again and the memories came flooding back.
Yes, the show appeared quaint, even cheesy. Yes, Daniel, the tiger sock puppet, was dinghy. Yes, Mr. Rogers looked hopelessly square, even for the 60s. But the things he said in that slow, soft, comforting voice were radical. Radical then, in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, and to some extent, even more radical today. His message of love, acceptance, and inclusion seemed distant but attainable in 1968. Sadly, fifty years later, his message seems impossibly out of reach.
I found myself crying at various points in the movie and often I wasn’t sure exactly why. Except that I mourned the loss of this calm, gentle soul. I missed his unique blend of radical truth and universal love. It was rare then, but virtually extinct in 2018. Why is that?
I couldn’t help wondering: how would the world be different today if we had more Mr. Rogers?
And then: how did we lose our sense of compassion? Our sense of civility? Our ability to be—how should I put it—neighborly?
Or even just plain nice. By this I mean treating others with respect and decency, regardless of their viewpoint or lifestyle. When did this quality become outdated?
Because I can tell you as a parent of an adopted, autistic child that if we can’t find a way to love our neuro-typical neighbors regardless of their religion, gender and sexual identity, or skin color, we will find it impossible to love, let alone respect, individuals such as my quirky, charming, and sometimes difficult daughter.
Katie struggles to conform to all but the most basic social norms. Not for lack of effort on her part. She observes people and details carefully, even minutely. But she often doesn’t understand why people do what they do—and that crucial detail makes all the difference. She might think that she does, but then she applies the rules incorrectly—and beats herself up afterward for the mistake. Or her sensory system becomes overstimulated and she loses control of her body or her mouth (or both). More self-loathing follows.
It breaks my heart.
Mr. Rogers understood instinctively that everyone deserves respect. Everyone is worthy of love—exactly as they are. Not when their religion changes or their behavior improves, but NOW. Just as they are. Imperfectly perfect human beings.
I, for one, plan to live his message as best I can. Not only because I parent an autistic child, but because it seems a powerful antidote to the hate and chaos that swirls around us.
We are all worthy of love and respect. We all have value, even those who struggle to fit in. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for the reminder.
Until next time,