“Come on over a minute. I just had some ideas that I’ve been thinking about for quite (a)while about modulation. It seems to me that there are different themes in life, and one of my main jobs, it seems to me, is to help, through the mass media for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”
– Fred Rogers
Talking about the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a difficult task. What could be so hard about talking about Mr. Rogers? Isn’t it just a series of feel good moments designed to distract you from the problems of the current day? Isn’t it just some show where a guy talks to kids with puppets? That’s how one side of the spectrum reacts, but just as difficult is talking to the people who do seem to like Mr. Rogers. Oh, it’s so ironic to like Mr. Rogers. How funny it is to relive our childhood. How crazy it is that a guy would be nice and wear sweaters and talk about feelings!
But truly, truly, I think that if we can get to the message of what Won’t You Be My Neighbor and by extension what Mr. Rogers was looking to say in a way completely devoid of ironic admiration or jest, then the world could be radically transformed.
The entire purpose of this website, and of the materials I’m working on, is that I want to share with the world how better to talk about their emotions. I want to help people to see that art is the conduit through which we can experience the things that are difficult to talk about. That the emotions that we feel are worth sitting in and exploring. So when I watch these interviews with Fred and others who knew him, to see that his desire was the same? That touched me in such a deeply profound way. This beautiful, kind soul, he understood what he was capable of through the screen. He may not have been making high end art films or experimenting in the visual medium, but he understood that relating with people through the shared experience of the screen is the entrance to us. He wasn’t just talking to children, he was trying to talk to all of us.
He truly believed that we can all be like him, and that’s why he did what he did. That we could all be the kindness he wanted to see and thus embody. If your reaction to this film was “Man, we need more people like Mr. Rogers in the world”, then you’ve missed his point entirely. We are good. Our thoughts do matter. He wasn’t looking to be idolized. He wasn’t looking for us to cry at how good he was, he was looking for us to see that in ourselves. He wanted us to be good because goodness begets more goodness. He wants us to see that those things are within reach if you’ll open up yourself in a way that will allow that to happen.
It’s difficult to watch this film and not compartmentalize the things he’s saying as being ‘for children’ when realistically it’s the adults currently who struggle just as mightily as the children do. It’s even mentioned when the film discusses Fred’s failed show for adults. Feelings? Those are things for children! We adults understand! We couldn’t be further from the truth. We segregate our emotions away from our everyday lives and convince ourselves we can handle what is going on around us. The Challenger explosion? A tragedy, for sure, but we understand that these things can happen and are able to come to grips with the reality and gravity of such a tragedy. That’s how we think about things going, but is that really the case? We’re closed off. Numb. Struggling to put into words our anxieties. Struggling to cope with the horrible things that happen to us and the people around us. Imagine then, the thought of another grown person, asking you how you genuinely felt about something. Really, imagine it. Could you be honest? Would you be able to put to words that something made you afraid, or happy, or nostalgic? We spend so many of our waking hours trying to do everything we can to dull these sorts of emotions and Rogers cut right through to the heart of what affects us.
Fred understood that art and relationships can combine to become that conduit that I mentioned earlier and that through which we can experience those emotions that we so desperately need to be in touch with. That’s.. that’s so ridiculously powerful. What a radical, crazy, resistant idea. That you should simply, feel.
Fred and his life have touched me so deeply because he says to me, being good is valuable enough. Sharing the things you love with others is enough. THAT is enough. It doesn’t matter if what you are doing is unique, or if you’re good at what you do, or if what you create is only ever experienced by you – simply desiring that other’s lives could be good and working to effect that change in those lives is what matters. That matters.
So next time you well up with emotion at the crescendo of a film, sit in it. Let it be there with you. Revel in it’s joy. Next time something makes you angry, be there. Experience it. Let’s genuinely try to listen to what Mr. Rogers was saying and go out to be the kindness that the world so desperately needs right now.