When I was a tween and beyond, we made fun of Mister Rogers. His name was not linked in our minds to kindness and compassion, but to simplistic, naive, pretend-everything-is-happy goody-goodism. Raise your hand, right now, if you remember Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood. (I know, you’re at your computer or on your phone at the coffee shop or, God forbid, driving your car. What the heck. Raise it anyway. And put down your phone while you drive!)
Eddie Murphy spoofed Mister Rogers on SNL and gave us a glimpse into a very different neighborhood than the one we’d grown up on. Do you know how popular Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood was? Nike paid NBA star David Robinson beaucoup bucks to do a series of commercials also entitled “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” (get it?) in which other basketball stars like Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, and Rudolph Firkosny (check it out) showed up at the door and they would make a quick joke and show you the Swoosh Stripe (TM). You know you’re popular when they make a parody of your parody.
You also know you’re popular when they make a parody of the parody about you.
As a teenager I thought I knew nearly everything* and that my jaded, cynical, reality-is-ugly-but-at-least-I-get-it perspective made me superior to those who lived in a fantasyland of goodness. Even though I wanted to make the world a better place (while getting famous and rich), I was clear that people are generally awful. Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Animal Farm awful.
The brilliance of Mister Rogers–which I completely missed when I knew everything but get so clearly now that I know so much less–is this: Mister Rogers was not pretending that every day was perfect and thus beautiful; he knew that some days are horrible and could be beautiful, anyway. No, better than that: he knew we could make them beautiful, anyway.
The humor of Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood is that an innocent-sounding narrator describes and encounters nasty features of inner city life (“The word for today is ‘Racist'”). But the brilliance of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is that he acknowledged the painful, sometimes horrible aspects of life–for children!–and continuously spoke a message of hope, that we can be okay in this real world. We can make this painful real world better for one another.
“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.” Fred Rogers
Rather than putting on a fake smile or burying our head in the sand, Fred Rogers “preached” that we can smile, for real, and still look our problems in the eye. The very act of offering our smile to people in pain while standing with them in their suffering is an act of courage and compassion.
Think I’m making something deep that wasn’t? I’m not.
“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.”
― Fred Rogers
Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot, arguably his most personal and intimate novel, about a loving, compassionate, authentically good character at the center of a culture that valued none of those things. Many of the other characters take Prince Myshkin to be simple-minded and foolish, an idiot. He does and says such things because he doesn’t know better. Ready for this?
I thought Fred Rogers was an idiot.
But I was.
The beauty of this, to me, is that people, generations, loved Mister Rogers. Loved him and recognized him as a hero in our midst. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the main character, based on the journalist Tom Junod, suspects that Fred Rogers must be fake, must have an angle, must be playing people with that “goodness and kindness” act. I just thought he was a fool. We were both wrong. As Dostoyevsky depicted with Prince Myshkin, many people felt drawn to Fred Rogers, but unlike Dostoyevsky’s embodiment of good in a corrupt culture, Fred Rogers remained grounded all his adult life, did not go mad, and offered his message of hope in kindness through the end of his life.
With this as context, look again at this picture that circulated through social media.
That image on a children’s television show was a radical act of racial reconciliation in 1969. Fred Rogers, whom I mistook for a fool, was a social justice warrior.** He confronted systemic, generational sin in our culture and fought for human rights: racial equality, education, disability rights, mental health, peace. You’d better believe he’s one of my heroes and certainly a role model for us to emulate.
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) What if the days are evil and we seek to make them beautiful? I’ve wrestled aloud on this blog, over and over, with how we confront these evils running rampant right now as Jesus followers, in his spirit of compassion and shalom. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17, 21)
I have a better idea how to do that now.
So please excuse me, I need to go binge some Mister Rogers’ episodes.
*By twenty-five I did, in fact, know everything. That started to get shaky with Rowan’s birth and went severely downhill from there, leading me at my current age to hang out with Uncertainty as my near-constant companion. Uncertainty is a strangely comforting bud to hang out with, once you stop fighting her. But hey, aren’t we all nicer to hang out with when the other person stops attacking us constantly?
**I know that term is used as an insult (I recognize the belittling, mocking tone from when I used it on others as a teenager). I’m reclaiming it. I’d love to be worthy of the title. I think following Jesus requires this, in whatever small ways we can. If we’re not fighting for social justice, what is the alternative?