I have previously written of the widening political and cultural divides in American society and the increasing sense of despair many of us feel over the depraved state of our public discourse. For the past three years, we have been led by a president so insecure and intellectually deficient that he resorts every day to lies, insults, and personally demeaning comments towards his political opponents, members of the press, foreign leaders, our trusted allies, even members of his own Cabinet. A perennial bully, he loves to humiliate people and lacks respect for the institutions over which he presides and to which the public has entrusted him.
I contemplate every day whether there is anything we as concerned citizens can do as the nation’s political and spiritual crisis becomes worse by the hour. How can we even begin to respond to the enormous needs and stakes of this moment in American history?
Sometimes the answers to such questions are found in childhood, when the most important lessons we learned were simply to be kind and to treat people with decency and fairness. In my lifetime, the one person who best practiced and exemplified these values was Fred Rogers, the creator of the long-running public television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rogers’ life is a reminder that there are certain people we encounter over the course of our lives – an inspirational teacher, a valued mentor, a rare public figure – who influence our sense of self-worth and how we treat those around us, and from whom we gain insightful wisdom about the meaning of life.
Rogers dedicated his life to childhood education and offered an important contrast to a mean-spirited political climate and a world consumed by materialism, competition, cynicism and violence. As explained by Maxwell King in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, “His legacy lives in the concept of a caring neighborhood where people watch out for one another, no matter where they come from or what they look like. Far from being old-fashioned, his vision is in fact more pertinent than ever in a fractured cultural and political landscape.”
A daily glance at the morning news provides a harsh reminder that the human values championed by Rogers are a thing of the past. And yet, the kindness and humanity he displayed every day of his life could not be more needed today. The lessons he imparted were simple and direct; he appealed to the essence of our humanity. By his example, he showed us that human kindness enhances our lives and makes the world better, and that meanness and selfishness degrade all of us.
A talented musician, philosopher, theologian, writer, and poet, Rogers was a serious student of childhood education and psychology. His intellectual depth far surpassed his image as the lovable “Mr. Rogers”. And yet his television personality was no act; in real-life, his concern for other human beings, for what was essential in life, never wavered. Fred Rogers recognized the goodness, and the child, in everyone he encountered.
I cannot say if Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell – or media personalities Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and so many others – ever watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when they were younger. But the overwhelming force of their shameless disdain for American democracy, their tolerance of racism and bigotry and fear of immigrants, their pervasive mean-spiritedness, strongly suggests they did not. Indeed, the values taught and instilled by Rogers to young children for forty years are frighteningly overshadowed in today’s political climate.
Unlike Trump and his henchmen, Rogers was the opposite of macho intensity. He listened, more as a vessel than a force in social interaction, and displayed a near Christ-like humility. He enhanced the lives of those around him through constant displays of warmth, humor, and understanding. He despised depictions of violent and aggressive behavior on television, and the crass, low-grade quality of most children’s programming. When he created Neighborhood, his show was one of only a few that spoke to young children on their terms.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was strongly influenced by the theologian Dr. William Orr, a chain-smoking seminary professor who taught that forgiveness was the essence of human kindness. Although he was a man of deep Christian faith, Rogers also studied and adopted universal wisdoms from Buddhism, Judaism, and many other religions, and believed in the inherent goodness of all of God’s children.
Rogers appealed to children’s sensibilities with a combination of slow pacing, simple explanations of complex problems, and a distinctive emphasis on human kindness. He was not afraid to explore difficult and sensitive topics – death, divorce, loss, pain, the evils of racism – in subtle and appropriate ways that resonated with children as young as three and four years old. This was a truly radical concept in the 1960s and 1970s. The day after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers wrote a special program designed to help parents and children cope with tragedy and the graphic displays of violence then plastering the evening news. As Maxwell King explained in The Good Neighbor, Rogers’ signature message was that “feelings are all right, whatever is mentionable is manageable, however confusing and scary life may become. Even with death and loss and pain, it’s okay to feel all of it, and then go on.”
Ironically, Rogers was criticized in some circles (including by Fox News in recent years) as too soft and naïve, and for not helping children prepare for the rigors of a demanding and competitive world. What these critics failed to understand, however, was that Rogers consistently emphasized personal responsibility and self-discipline. He helped children find and develop their own capacities, which he believed made them stronger adults. He understood that life was a journey and that the choices we make along the way, as both children and adults, impact the world for better or worse. In the last commencement address he ever gave – at Dartmouth College – Rogers said:
I’m very much interested in choices, and what it is and who it is that enable us human beings to make the choices we make all through our lives. What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment, the erosion of the Sabbath, suicide bombings, or teenagers shooting teachers? What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?
The life and teachings of Fred Rogers offer an important counterpoint to the meanness and vulgarity in our culture today. Were he alive, I can imagine the heartbreak he would feel for the state of our political discourse and the disrespectful, degrading rhetoric of the President. In his quiet and gentle manner, he would offer alternatives to the gratuitous violence in our television shows and movies, to rampant commercialism, and to the constant grab for more, bigger, better, faster that permeates all aspects of American society.
He would have been especially horrified with the Trump administration’s family separation policy and images of children in cages at our borders, with the rising tide of white nationalism, and the emphasis on America First. Rogers believed fundamentally that how society treats its children directly impacts how those children develop, mentally and socially, and who they will become and how they will act as adults. “Childhood is not just about clowns and balloons,” he said. “In fact, childhood goes to the very heart of who we will become.”
Although he understood the importance of traditional learning and the utility of science, math, and reading, he emphasized the need to instill values and help children develop socially and mentally. As he told the American Academy of Child Psychiatry in 1971:
It is easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers. . . . How do we help people to realize that what matters even more than the superimposition of adult symbols is how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers in his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise – his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.
Although Rogers earned a significant degree of fame, he cared little for it. “What matters is what you do with it,” he said. “In the one life we have to live, we can choose to demean this life, or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.” Now more than ever, America would do well to heed the lessons of Fred Rogers and recognize that the presence or absence of human kindness affects everything.
We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes. – Fred Rogers