Mister Rogers (Alone) Cannot Save Us

Used with permission, photo © Jim Judkis
Having been born in the mid 1960s, my formative childhood memories mostly occur during the 1970s. In ways which I was only vaguely aware of then, the 1970s were a turbulent outworking of the aftermath of the previous decade, where the country’s overarching narratives of benevolence and purity were disrupted in both constructive and destructive ways.

In the days before cable television’s ascendency, and when something like the internet only existed on the far edges of imagination, the entertainment world in which most Americans lived was mediated to us in a fairly limited number of options. Evening time at my grandfather’s house always included the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, a daily 30-minute summation of the state of the world, delivered with Cronkite’s calm gravitas as America’s wise elder and televised scribe. In my grandparent’s finished basement den, I watched the fall of Saigon leading to the effective end of the Vietnam War, a conflict whose wounds and casualties to the American psyche I would only begin to grasp in the retrospective pop cultural musings of the 1980s. Cronkite, too, let me know about the resignation-in-disgrace of the President I had previously admired for the childlike-and-self-centered reason that we shared the same first name.

Television was mostly an adult’s environment around which my parents set boundaries as to what was appropriate for us to consume. The offerings were few, mostly resigned to Saturday morning cartoons on the major networks or the obscure cartoons intermittently broadcast on UHF channels, like Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales or the dubbed black-and-white Japanese Gigantor.  In the midst of these intermittent junk food options lay the daily building blocks provided by public television: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Electric Company, and Zoom.

While PBS was committed to children’s education and development, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the true outlier in this lineup. Yes, it included music, puppets, bright colors. But it didn’t share the quick cuts, loud noises, and vaudeville comedy interspersed in the other shows. Instead, Mister Rogers’ visual vibe reflected its host -- gentle, dependable, never in a hurry.  Mister Rogers never begged for your attention, but you somehow believed, despite knowing your “visit” with such a pastoral presence was artificially brokered by television, that you had his complete attention.

Before being old enough to be released to bike the neighborhood and surrounding areas during good weather, my brother and I would park ourselves in the den in front of the 19 inch television screen and filled that lull time between getting home from school and family dinner with these four shows. If you had quizzed me anytime over the years as to my favorite of these shows, I would have unhesitatingly told you Sesame Street was the best, filled as it was with the colorful characters of Jim Hensen’s vibrant imagination. My comic book-loving-self would have talked about how much I looked forward to the five minute Spider-Man adventures on Electric Company, whose plots didn’t have much risk but they were more compelling than the Hostess cake and fruit pie panels in the comic books, and they were narrated with smooth authority by a young Morgan Freeman.

Yet, when I became a parent myself, it was the quiet, gentle world of Mister Rogers neighborhood that I wanted to make sure my children experienced, aware as I was of its discontinuity with the energy of Teletubbies or The Magic School Bus on PBS, much less the bombast of Animaniacs or Pinky and the Brain. There was some special treasure there, a gift received that I wanted to pass on, even if I was only inchoately aware of it myself. Somehow, I knew it was more than just inevitable adult nostalgia for their childhood past. Sure, it is no doubt inseparable from it. But was there something more?

Like so many of my peers who find themselves firmly ensconced in the middle age years with our 60s much closer than our 30s, I found myself giddy with excitement at the early trailers for the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and surprised by the mist in my eyes it produced. What was it that Fred Rogers meant to us? What could that possibly mean to us now in a time that seems so different from his gentle demeanor? And yet, Fred Rogers invited us to consider Jesus’s perennial question of who our neighbor was and is, beginning in 1968, a violent year that inflicted deep wounds in the myth of American innocence, wounds which precede the tumultuous 1960s and have yet to heal since.

My family treated me to the opening night show on Father’s Day weekend. We were in Tampa for an extended weekend getaway and joined a sold-out, capacity crowd at the historic Tampa Theatre. Built in 1926, its restored ornate interior lent a holy, cathedral like atmosphere for the feast in store for us. While I imagine that most of us would not have been able to completely articulate our expectations at the moment, we had gathered as a body, semi-consciously expectant and holding out for a word for our uncertain times.

During several moments within the documentary, hot tears overwhelmed me and traced tributaries across my cheeks carrying downstream a cargo of joy, grief, loss, and a sense of gratitude for the testimony to the presence of good in the world. Some of those moments were unsurprising to me like the reunion of Fred Rogers and the adult Jeff Erlanger, who, as a young boy with cerebral palsy facing a dangerous surgery, appeared in 1981 on Mister Rogers Neighborhood and joined Mister Rogers in singing “It’s You I Like.” Together, they mentored us all on the practice of being completely present to the other as a child of God.

Where I found myself surprised at having to choke back sobs was during the performance in the closing credits of Fred Rogers’ daily benediction from the neighborhood, “It’s Such a Good Feeling.” A simple yet profound hymn of gratitude, the song brings to our awareness the fundamental mystery of existence and the ways in which every moment we draw breath is a wonder-full experience. “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive/It’s such a happy feeling/You’re growing inside.”

But it was during the bridge in the song where I found my chest beginning to heave in a way that would have most certainly produced a tear-streaming, nose-running, breath-catching “ugly cry.” “...I’ll be back when the day is new/And I’ll have more ideas for you/And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about/I will, too.” It became crystal clear to me that every day of my childhood viewing, Fred Rogers was inviting us all to participate in the sacrament of relationship, of communion. There was a promise of presence, of attentiveness to one another, and the recognition that we each had gifts to share with one another. In fact, we recognized ourselves as gifts to one another in relationship.

I found myself exiting the theater in an almost aimless manner with the crowd, all of us wordlessly giving testimony to the ways in which we had been moved in the prior hour and a half. Glistening eyes met glistening eyes, with knowing nods and pats on shoulders. Strangers bonded in a neighborhood opened up before us.

Waiting outside the theater, illuminated under the glowing marquee, I waited for my family to catch up with me. A group of male couples who had seen the film together warmly embraced one another in successive hugs; a performed hope of a day in which our culture would be guided by Rogers’ mantra “I like you just the way you are.” It was the closest I have come to an experience like Thomas Merton’s Louisville epiphany on Fourth and Walnut, “... I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” We were neighbors.

In the days that followed, the media was filled understandably with honorific think pieces almost canonizing Fred Rogers. They were deserved in numerous ways but they were also, I think, indicative of the way our popular culture rushes to hermetically seal luminary examples of humanity as unreachable icons, symbols of our highest ideals just beyond our reach. We do this with our cultural heroes, our political candidates, our religious and spiritual leaders. We commodify them and, by placing them just beyond our reach, we excuse ourselves of the hard, messy, partial and fragmentary work of community.

To its credit, the documentary worked to swim against this stream, to remind us that Mister Rogers alone could not save us. He, like us, was a human being who struggled with anxiety, self-doubt and whose full throated acceptance of others grew and developed with time. The film’s director even shifted our focus from the question of what Mister Rogers would do in our current context of increasing polarization and fear to a more helpful-and harder-question of what we are going to do in our “neighborhood.” We were offered no answers but reminded of a place, a neighborhood which both exists (if we have eyes to see) and is to come (as Fred Rogers calls us to proclaim in deed and word). “It’s a beautiful day for a neighbor/Would you be mine?”

The film ends, and our work continues in the spaces opened up by the last two words spoken by Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, “Thank you.” It is one of what writer Anne Lamott describes as the three fundamental types of prayer: “help, thanks, wow.” The deep and abiding gratitude for each day, for our neighbors, for the gifts we have yet to receive and give with those who are different than us are all wrapped up in this two-word proclamation that is also a prayer. It is not a magic formula nor is Fred Rogers a messianic figure who we appreciate and then passively wait for his successor to emerge.

We are called instead to recognize the beauty of the divine spark in one another, to empathetically attend to one another’s experience without defining it for each other, and to love our neighbor as ourselves which, as we often forget, is a reminder to love ourselves deeply. It is not a magic formula. It is not always easy or feels natural. It is threatened by fear. It is work not in the sense of vain effort but of calling. It is a way to embrace the gift of life, of life together, of our growth and struggle, and of the presence of the divine in all. It is liturgy, the work of the people. Thank you.