Won't You be My Neighbor? is hitting theaters. Get your tickets here!
Fred Rogers graced our television sets for the first time in 1968. A musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister, Rogers was multi-talented and possessed a passion for childhood development. Concerned with the poor television programming children were being exposed to, he set out to create his own show in order to deliver meaningful, heartfelt lessons while actively engaging with his audience. Through his radical methods, he taught children an array of emotional and social subject matter that shined light on death, divorce, racism, self-worth, and neighborly love. Mr. Rogers became an icon and spent over three decades devoting his life to helping children and making the world a better place through educational programming. Director Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the man himself and his impactful work.
While many of us grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there are still several lessons that resonate deeply as an adult. Here are just a few for you; I hope they can help you today as much (if not more) as they did when you were a kid.
It’s no secret that we live in a world of constant judgment. The societal pressure to look and act a certain way according to our age or gender is suffocatingly present in our everyday lives. Depictions of beauty are skin-deep and the definitions of what is considered attractive or successful stalks us through magazine covers and TV screens. While it is difficult to love ourselves, it can be even more difficult to love other people. Deep political divide and inherent racism lingers like a chronic illness, and the fear of emotional vulnerability can damage relationships before they even start. Therefore, this lesson to ‘love yourself and love your neighbor’ is a pivotal notion. Mr. Rogers embraced love and even physically embodied it by maintaining a weight of 143 pounds because “I” is one letter, “love” is four, and “you” is three. Now, I don’t suggest going to that kind of extreme. However, taking some time (even the smallest effort) to embrace love for ourselves and others can truly do wonders. Mr. Rogers reminded us that there are many ways to say “I love you”; as an adult, it doesn’t have to be as scary as some may think.
"Deep within us—no matter who we are—there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving."
"The toughest thing is to love somebody who has done something mean to you. Especially when that somebody has been yourself."
Utilizing coping mechanisms have become a crucial part of being an adult. Stress management and anger management are daunting struggles that people dish out big bucks to control while simultaneously hoping to boost their serotonin levels. As adults, we can get caught up suppressing feelings and masking our fears instead of addressing underlying issues head on. When these challenges aren’t approached in a healthy and constructive manner, negative emotions can often yield unhealthy and even dangerous outcomes. Mr. Rogers embodied kindness but never neglected the fact that anger is a part of life - a natural human emotion that is okay to acknowledge. He encouraged his viewers to master their feelings of anger and find productive ways to express them in a manner that is not damaging to one’s self or to others. Therefore, anger can be replaced with a sense of strength, and truthfully acknowledging your feelings can provide a cathartic freedom.
"Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it."
It’s easy to get stuck in our ways as an adult. We take on the whole Trainspotting script of “choosing life” and all of its mundane accessories, but a lot of times that means losing a sense of wonder and curiosity that prevailed in childhood. Why travel when we can just stay at home and watch TV? Why read a book when there’s a film adaptation or a quick google search readily available at our fingertips? Who has time to develop a new skill? There are endless excuses not to go somewhere new, try something new, start over, or just take a leap of faith outside of our comfort zones or jaded pasts. Mr. Rogers encouraged all of this and more. Several of his episodes included guest visitors and trips to various places to see how things work or how they are made. He encouraged kids to “grow things in your mind garden” (yes, you read that right) by maintaining a constant state of curiosity to flourish creatively, emotionally, and intellectually.
"I think it's very important - no matter what you may do professionally - to keep alive some of the healthy interests of your youth. Children's play is not just kids' stuff. Children's play is rather the stuff of most future inventions."
It’s depressingly easy to have limited to no faith in humanity these days. We are inundated with daily news of murders, mass killing sprees, lies, and general horrific stories of what people are doing to each other, animals, and our planet. It’s exhausting, which is why many of us find so much joy in browsing baby animal photos or literally any positive story where something good actually happens. When the tragedy of 9/11 struck, TV producers sought out Mr. Rogers to help explain to kids what had happened. He generously obliged and reminded us all to look for the helpers. There will always be twisted people and tragic events that occur in this life. However, humanity is restored by those who seek to help others - to do good in the face of evil, to stand up for what is right, to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves - those who create something beautiful and who give back to make the world a better place. If we can’t be one of these people ourselves (which he encouraged as well), then we should just look for them in the face of disaster. They are the radiant beacons scattered amongst the darkness of our harsh reality.
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
Fred Rogers revolutionized public educational television for children. He was concerned about the slap-stick gimmicks children were exposed to and how programming had lost any sort of substantial meaning. He sought change in ways which were transparent and often controversial to popular opinion. He did not shy away from difficult subject matter and instead embraced topics that many parents shelter their kids from all together, including divorce and death. Mr. Rogers took matters into his own hands by initiating action. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication attempted to slash funding in half for the non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1969, Mr. Rogers delivered a sweetly sincere testimony that won them over, and the original funding of $20 million was set to continue. As adults, it can be easy to become complacent and feel like something may not be a big deal since it doesn’t directly affect us. However, adjusting perception for the greater good, towards something that will benefit humanity for years to come, can ignite change. Even if it was unorthodox, Mr. Rogers emphasized that each of his young viewers had a unique individuality that was worthwhile; and therefore, everything one does is meaningful, and most important of all: that action works best when carried out with love.
“When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”