A Beautiful Day: Mr. Rogers and Beyond

Celebrating the life of Mr. Rogers – even 16 years after his death – his awesome goodness still gives hope to us all.
A week or so ago David and I went to Cine Bistro here in Richmond and saw the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks – one of my very favorite actors. David and I both have memories of growing up with Mr. Rogers – or at least our kids growing up with him. Pittsburgh, where Rogers lived and broadcast from, was also my home base for years. Turns out his papers are archived at St. Vincent’s College just east of Pittsburgh. I visited that campus several times during my tenure at the University of Pittsburgh and have many memories of that place.

The movie was wonderful and heartwarming as most reviewers have noted, and has been followed by a spate of articles about Mr. Rogers and our continued fascination with the man several years after his death in 2003. For those of you who haven’t yet viewed the film, the two main characters are Tom Hanks playing Rogers and Matthew Rhys who plays Tom Junod, a somewhat cynical journalist who was working for Esquire magazine in 1998. He was assigned by the editor to do a small feature on Fred Rogers for a “hero” series and resented the paltry assignment as beneath his dignity as a writer.

In the December issue of The Atlantic, Junod wrote a major piece about his intense, four-year relationship with Rogers that apparently changed his life … for the better, to say the least. (See the lead photo and the second photo below.) Near the beginning of the piece Junod writes, “Fred was, let’s not forget, a rather peculiar man, and it is not just his goodness but rather the peculiarity of his goodness that has made him, 16 years after his death, triumphant as a symbol of human possibility, although just about everything he stood for has been lost.” (“What Would Mister Rogers Do?” The Atlantic, December 2019, p. 80.)

And what was it Rogers stood for? Basically he paid attention to everyone he met, including little children on his show. He valued them, he believed in their goodness, and in the goodness of creation. The last words Rogers said to Junod shortly before his death were, “How like you.” Junod says that one of Roger’s efforts in the years they were linked was his “ongoing effort to convince me that I was a good person.” That everyone is special, one of a kind, and Junod was no exception. Junod writes, “[Fred] never stooped to proselytizing. But he lived a life of prayer, and he wanted us – he wanted me – to pray.” (p. 85) Junod ends the article with the following words: “Still I find myself asking for his blessing, and like the aged Private Ryan after he walks away from the grave of the officer who rescued him, I issue a plea that sounds a little bit like a prayer: Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve lived a good life, then tell me what to do now.” (p. 85)

And what does Fred Rogers want us to do now? What does he want us to do now in the face of increasing youth suicide? What does he want us to do now as we are faced with a tide of loneliness that is sweeping our country? Two recent articles appearing recently in The New York Times call our attention to some startling statistics. In a Nov. 10 op-ed by Nicholas Kristol (“Let’s Wage a War on Loneliness”), Kristol cites a 2018 survey that showed that one-fifth of adults in both the U.S. and Britain report that they often or always feel lonely. More than half of American adults are unmarried, and researchers have found that even among those who are married, 30 percent of relationships are severely strained. A quarter of Americans now live alone, and as the song says, “one is the loneliest number.” Extended families have fragmented, and social institutions like churches and civic clubs have become less important to many.

According to an article by Jane Brody in the Dec. 3 issue of the Times, youth suicide among those aged 10 to 24 has increased by 56 percent between 2007 and 2017, making suicide the leading cause of death after accidents in that age group. Cellphone use, social media pressures and lack of sleep are all blamed for this spate of deaths among the youth in our country. John Ackerman, a clinical psychologist and coordinator of suicide prevention at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, proposes that “more time and money needs to be spent on identifying kids who are most vulnerable, helping them respond effectively to stress and teaching them what they can do in a crisis.” (p. D5) Brody notes the following observation from another psychologist, Jean Twenge, at San Diego State University:

Eighty-five percent of teens are looking at social media. … There’s less face-to-face time spent with friends. It’s now the norm to sit home Saturday night on Instagram. Who’s popular and who’s not is now quantifiable by how many people are following you. Kids are spending as much as eight hours a day on social media, where there’s a lot of negativity, competition and jockeying for status and unfiltered access to sites that tell them how to harm themselves.
Which brings me back to Fred Rogers. One more op-ed about him that I’ll cite for this blog appeared just recently, on Nov. 29 in the Times by Mariana Alessandri (“Mister Rogers’s Anger Management.” (Third photo below) She points out that despite Mr. Rogers’ sweet manner, he had a definite appreciation of our darker moods, including anger, stress, fear, sadness, loneliness, and disappointment. Apparently Fred was a fat kid when he was growing up and was the target of taunts as “fat Freddy.” Knowing firsthand that adults – presumably including his own parents – attempt to silence their children about dwelling on dark feelings – feelings that are part of all of our human makeup – he prized the acknowledgment and facing of our darkness as part of who we are.

Rogers’ point always was that you are not to be blamed for feelings of hurt and loneliness and anger, but what becomes most important is what you do with the feelings that you face. He peered deeply into the souls of those he interacted with – including Junod – and saw, like God’s response to the creation He made, that it was good. As Alessandri points out in her article, for Fred Rogers and for other philosophers along the way, all feelings are potentially useful in that they provide an opportunity to practice behaving well. Everyone is special. There never will be another one just like you. And God loves you as you are and gives you the opportunity to practice being better.

The success of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and all the articles that have followed, focusing on Roger’s character and legacy, are testimony to – as Junod says – a persistence of a certain kind of human hunger, the hunger for goodness. And when we spy it in someone like Rogers – even 16 years after his death – celebrating his awesome goodness again and again, his person we still celebrate gives hope to us all. That we can be better than this, and that others and creation itself are basically good. As Rogers wanted for Junod … let us pray!