I don't remember my dad ever explaining his divorce from my mother or what it meant for me. They split up when I was just two years old, and I spent most of my childhood being carted around by a single dad, moving so often that I rarely formed significant friendships (I would later find out that my father had a habit of skipping out on the rent and mortgage; we moved 10 times in one year). Like many latchkey kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, the television was my babysitter, and it fell to Mister Rogers to help me deal with a chaotic, motherless childhood in which my only anchor was a father who habitually lied about most things. When I was seven, for instance, dad left me with my grandma while he "went away to college." It wasn't until I was 12 that I discovered a cache of letters from an old girlfriend addressed to my father, in prison, where he was serving time for forging checks during that period. Still, I wasn't angry at the betrayal or his absence. I didn't forgive him, either; we just laughed it off and moved on. Despite years of lies, my unstable childhood, his casual cruelties, and the way he kept me from seeing my mother, I loved my dad more than anything. I trusted him implicitly and without question, not just because he was the grown-up, but because he was my father. It's only in hindsight that I realize how he abused that trust, repeatedly.
The trust between an adult – specifically a parent – and child was a core issue for Fred Rogers, the impossibly kind host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Adults wield immense power and influence over the lives of their children; to call that power "godlike" would be an oversimplification. There was nothing more life-affirming or hopeful to Rogers than children, with all their curiosity and potential and their capacity for kindness – things grown-ups increasingly lack as they get older. Children have this ability and eagerness to be awed by the simplest things, whereas adults have it polluted out of them, their hearts calcified by years of growing cynicism through exposure to mature concepts like the workforce, taxes, and politics. In 2019, we've been reprogrammed by social media, which demands instant, constant reactions to everything from politicians to new movies, and rewards the loudest, most hyperbolic opinions. This method of communication is exhausting and toxic on its best days; at its worst, it's slowly chipped away at the concept of nuance and plainly encouraged binary thinking. There is no room for the compassion espoused by Mister Rogers every day on PBS.
To be fair, there are monsters in this world whose horrendous acts are borne from a lack or complete absence of empathy. It's all but impossible to feel a smidgen of compassion for the Trumps and Weinsteins of this world, whose cruelties are so casually enabled by the insidious systems built to sustain them. Would Mister Rogers find it within himself to extend compassion to these people? The answer to that question exemplifies the sort of nuanced emotional thinking we've come to expect from Rogers: He would feel compassion for the children those people once were.
That idea, of the inner child in turmoil, is a key component to director Marielle Heller's inventive approach to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which eschews the traditional biopic model in favor of exploring a single life touched and healed by Fred Rogers – a man who spent his days using old, worn-out puppets to teach children how to process those feelings that carry negative connotations, like fear and anger and resentment. Heller's film is an exercise in the virtues of Mister Rogers, and is in itself a long format episode of the series that's every bit as instructive, kind, and – most importantly – human as the man himself. The film is inspired by the real-life friendship that developed between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, who profiled the children's TV host for Esquire in 1998. Junod is fictionalized and reinterpreted in Heller's film as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a man and new father who finds it impossible to believe that Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers are one in the same, and whose turbulent relationship with his estranged father has defined his cynical view of humanity. Rogers is played by the only living actor who could possibly tackle such a formidable role: Tom Hanks. Echoing Heller's style, Hanks eschews a typical imitation in favor of capturing the spirit of Rogers. (How he was able to genuinely mimic the twinkle in Rogers' eyes is nothing short of sorcery.)
From the moment they meet, Rogers senses Vogel's inner torment and goes to work divesting the journalist of his hardened shell. There are many beautiful words to describe Fred Rogers, but in Heller's film, the most prominent one in his interactions with Vogel is "disarming." Rogers is every bit the patient and curious man he is on television, gently prodding Vogel to open up about his father (Chris Cooper), who left his mother after the family found out she was terminally ill. During a heated confrontation with his father, who's stubbornly trying to re-enter his son's life, Vogel describes in heart-shattering detail how his mother died. It wasn't peacefully or quietly, as most people would have you believe: she screamed in agony until she passed out from the strain; the doctors revived her and she resumed screaming once more. This detail is crucial to understanding why Vogel resents his father so much, and why he finds it impossible to feel compassion for him, let alone forgiveness.
Through Vogel, Heller explores the profound effect Rogers had on both children and adults alike, but she also encapsulates something vital through the eyes of this adult man who thinks Mister Rogers is just for kids – that he doesn't need to listen to what a children's TV host has to say: the world needs Mister Rogers now more than ever, and yet the world we live in now – the people we are now – would reject him. The mere notion of extending compassion and kindness to those we perceive as "other" or of the opposition is unfathomable to most people. And yet empathy is the only tool at our disposal to make this world a better place and repair the damage inflicted on both a macro and micro level, against each other and the planet we carelessly inhabit. Empathy is the most important and vital human quality; it is a virtue and a skill, one that must be practiced – as Rogers did – every day. If our negative attributes are the manifestation of deep insecurities, then empathy is the manifestation of painful lived experience. Unfortunately, the inverse is and must also be true: those painful experiences are often the root cause of our cynicism, nihilism, cruelty, apathy, and indifference. We choose how to process our traumas, which can become the foundation for compassion or just as easily curdle into aversion and intolerance.
I won't pretend that I've successfully practiced empathy throughout my life, despite the early and frequent teachings of Mister Rogers, a man who had to practice his patience and compassion every single day. Like most people, I struggle with the limits of that empathy. Nazis, Trump, perpetrators of hate crimes, rapists – they're all on the list of people who, in my estimation, don't deserve such kindness and understanding. It's just too difficult and laborious (and perhaps generous) to extend them that kindness, not that they're likely to accept it or be changed by it in any fundamental way. I can, however, empathize with the fragile children they once were, or the frightened and abandoned teenagers, or the abuse they possibly endured at the hands of someone wielding the power they themselves wield now. Lloyd Vogel is capable of change, of doing the hard work of forgiving and learning compassion; his father was just a drunken, selfish philanderer and those wounds were much easier to dress. I suppose almost everyone is capable of change, barring a medical diagnosis of psychopathy or a bank account large enough to aid and abet their violent transgressions and hate. To say that empathy can save the world seems almost too simple until you're forced to examine the very nature of the thing itself. It is perhaps too complex for a world increasingly saturated in black and white, where banal mistakes and microaggressions are too easily and too often lumped in with far more severe transgressions, the thinking being that the former is a precursor to the latter – and sometimes that is certainly the case, but not always.
There is an exceptional scene in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Rogers teaches Vogel about the transformative power of trauma and heartache, and how the worst moments in our lives define us. Sitting across from Vogel in a diner, Rogers explains that his friend has taken a limited view of how his father's actions have informed the person he's become. Vogel's relationship with his father has made him cynical and myopic, yes, but it's also a piece of the elaborate, experiential puzzle that is this single human being. "Your relationship with your father shaped those parts," Rogers says. "He helped you." He says this last line so plainly, with only the most subtle dramatic emphasis. Heller lingers on Rogers' face, his eyes looking directly into Vogel's. It's as if Rogers is the only person who can see Vogel – or anyone – with such clarity. Rogers asks Vogel to join him for a single minute of silence, and the entire diner goes quiet around them. On this side of the picture, the entire movie theater fell silent in reverence to Fred Rogers. "Think about all the people who loved us into being," says Rogers. And for that entire minute, we do – all of us: Mister Rogers, Lloyd Vogel, the audience, and me.
In that moment I think about how movies are empathy machines, and how the picture isn't the only thing projected in that dark auditorium; we project our own experiences onto that screen, too, in a reflexive attempt to identify with the characters, their actions, and their reactions. I think about how it's the perfect vessel for a story about Mister Rogers – the human embodiment of compassion and kindness, refracted through these images and sounds with their mystical capacity to spark empathy. It's empathy, concentrated and distilled and administered for maximum effect. And, of course, I think about my dad and all the hurt he caused, and all the resentment I still carry, ten years after his death, despite my casual posturing to the contrary. Like Lloyd Vogel, I cannot acknowledge the love I have for my father and all the good feelings he gave me without acknowledging the bad. I cannot speak of his good qualities without conceding his negative attributes. And I can't pick and choose which parts of my father influenced parts of me; to do so would be to excise a chunk of my body and pretend it never existed at all. I think about how this is true of most things, and how every person is this perfect, messy configuration of experiences that have shaped their opinions and feelings and how they relate to the world around them – and how those experiences are both good and bad and in between. I think about how traumatic experiences are more potent than good ones in this process, how they are a part of us but do not have to define us.
Many horrible things have happened in my life; it's awful that they happened, and it would have been better if these things had happened differently. If my father hadn't lied, cheated, and sometimes stole. If he hadn't pushed my mother out; or, if he was truthful, if she hadn't abandoned me. If my father hadn't criticized my appearance with such casual, mindless cruelty. If I hadn't been molested by a stranger one of the few times I did spend time with my mother as a child. If I hadn't been abused and violated and raped by boyfriends. If my parents had paid more mind to my mental well-being and gotten me the help I needed early on. If I had gone to college. If I had left my parents' house later, if I'd left that boyfriend sooner. This isn't a special list of hypotheticals. You probably have a similar one. I don't feel good about the things on this list, but I am grateful for the person I am now, and it's crucial to acknowledge that I would not be that person without this list of horrible things – every bit as much as I wouldn't be this person without the love of my parents, or the support of friends, or the patience and compassion of Mister Rogers.
It was Mister Rogers who explained divorce to me, and it was Mister Rogers who told me it was okay to be frightened or mad or sad. He taught me that all feelings were normal, but it was what we did with them that mattered. While the world around me and the rest of the media was busy teaching me to hate myself so that I could grow up to be a good consumer, Mister Rogers was telling me that I was special just the way I was. Perhaps if more people listened to Mister Rogers, things would be better. They might take those traumas and do something better with them. Mister Rogers taught me that the bad things that happened could help me relate to other people experiencing similar bad things, that having all these feelings could help me understand them in others, and that when someone does something that hurts us, maybe we can consider the bad things that happened to them to make them behave that way. He taught me about the most important thing in the world: empathy.
That world has become too facile for Mister Rogers and his nuanced thinking and compassion. At the same time, the world feels as though it's become too complicated for the simple act of empathy to ever be enough. It's far too easy – comfortable, even – to ignore and reject something than it is to pick up the thing and really look at it. In Heller's film, Vogel has a brief exchange with Rogers' wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), who rejects his attempt to label her husband a saint. To do so would imply that Mister Rogers' way of living is unattainable, she says. Being kind, patient, curious, and compassionate are not super-human powers or works of fiction. As Joanne explains, Rogers struggled with these things just like the rest of us. He had to practice these qualities every single day, and at the end of that day – after writing letters to strangers and praying for individual people by name – he was still a human being with his own shortcomings. He just practiced more than most of us.
If empathy can be practiced, then surely it can be learned. Life deals us the hurtful lessons, and Mister Rogers was there to teach us with kindness. What will we do with it?