We just watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as a family. Eleven of us including Kim’s mom, which was apropos, considering that of all the people in the world I know personally, she most emulates Mister Rogers.
I’m going to reflect on the movie but I’m not going to give you my review of the movie other than See it. Please.
A central theme of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is: Can anyone that nice, that kind, be real? Can someone authentically live at that level of concern for others? Or does that have to be fake?
In a marvelous scene, Fred Rogers’ wife explains why she dislikes the word “saint” and describes how her husband practices the actions of kindness. This description both re-humanizes him and makes his behavior accessible–which is precisely her point.
Lloyd Vogel: So how does it feel to be married to a living saint?
Joanne Rogers: You know, I’m not fond of that term. If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable. You know, he works at it all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger.
Lloyd Vogel: That must take a lot of effort.
Joanne Rogers: Well, yeah, he does things every day that help to ground him. Reads Scripture. Swims laps. Prays for people by name. Writes letters, hundreds of them. He’s been doing that since I met him.
If you read my blog, or much of anything I write, you know a few things I insist on repeating: 1) I don’t care for easy answers or cliches, 2) I believe in the power of simple actions, even in the face of overwhelming situations, and 3) the simple actions require so much of us. “Love your neighbor” sounds so simple; it’s so hard.
Reading interviews with the real Joanne Rogers, we see she stresses this: her Fred wasn’t a saint. Others can follow his “way of being.” It’s attainable. He “did things every day to help to ground him.”
I want to spend just two moments recognizing this tension: God works through us and we live the practices that shape how we behave and ultimately, whom we become. We depend on God and we can attain kindness as way of life.
God’s spirit dwells in us. We get strength and peace from God. Even though I can’t quantify or fully explain that, I experience it.
We can’t do this (living compassionately) without God but neither do we find the autopilot and “leave it to God.” Trusting God sometimes sounds like “leaving it to God,” but if I just stepped back, withdrew my volitional will, and let however I react to things play out…ugly. We choose how we respond to our feelings and impulses.
Yet, if you’ve read my blog consistently, you will also know I frequently call attention to our brokenness and struggle, even our mental illness and depression that make our choices so much harder and make this process far from simple. I want to believe living like Mister Rogers in the world is attainable but I refuse to oversimplify this process, especially for those who find living in their own skin a daily challenge. It sounds simple. So does “do to others as you would have them to to you.” But when questions begin with “Then why don’t you just…” we’re only adding a layer of shame, rather than moving toward wholeness.
Putting it together: 1)God works through us and we can’t love others or show kindness without God’s spirit;* 2)we must practice the actions that show others love and kindness and we ourselves need to stay rooted, including keeping a routine or regular set of activities that ground us; and 3)we might be battling a mental state, chemical imbalance or predisposition that makes these actions or this routine much more difficult. Ideally, that directs us back to “1.”
I’ve been “off Facebook” for Lent. I’ve felt the difference, drastically. True confessions, I have not stayed all the way off. Intermittently I scroll and see horrible, disheartening things and rebuke myself for breaking my fast. I’m fasting from this for a reason and that reason becomes abundantly clear when I drift back on.
Saturating in bad news, I’ve grown angry and shrill and ungracious. I dwell and stew and fume. You might almost say “he does things every day to help keep him from being grounded.” You wouldn’t be far from the truth. Uncomfortably close.
I’m fasting from this constant inundation of negatives so that I can move back toward being the person I hope to be in the world.
At one point, the journalist interviewing Mister Rogers says this:
Lloyd Vogel: It seems like all these people line up to tell you their problems.
Fred Rogers: Isn’t it wonderful? Such bravery?
And one of my children immediately said, “Is that how it is, Dad? ‘Wonderful?'”
I laughed and said, “Oh, it’s wonderful alright.”
You don’t need me to tell you that I’m not Mister Rogers. But there’s something wonderful for me that my kiddos see that in me. It is a burden, I won’t kid you, and I’m sad that it’s one I don’t always bear well because it’s also an honor. I mean that.
I hope you get a chance to watch this movie. Movies can be like Rorschach blots: you see what you read in. Not everyone loves Fred Rogers and not everyone thinks his manner is a good way to be in the world. My guess is a lot of people think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were like that?”
I want to be exactly like that. I watched it and thought: There. That’s how I want to be in the world.
I plan to write a couple more posts this week on becoming more like Mister Rogers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus’ central commandment (along with “love God”) is the invitation that little children’s ditty extends:
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Oh, one more thing: Chris Cooper is spectacular. For me, he nearly steals the show.
*I’m stubborn on this point, but I also believe God works through anyone who loves or shows compassion, whether they are aware of God’s working in them or not. So you can debate me on whether God exists, but not on whether only Jesus followers can love. I’ve seen too many people who show more love than I do who don’t believe what I believe. God’s grace is greater than that.