Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?

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I see a direct line between two recent bits of news. Here’s the first: “America Really Is in the Midst of a Rising Anxiety Epidemic,” headlines a Science Alert published in May. Reporting on the findings of an American Psychiatric Association (APA) Public Opinion Poll, the author writes: “If you’re feeling stressed, uncertain about what the future holds, or even physically unsafe, try not to panic—you’re definitely not alone.” https://www.sciencealert.com/americans-are-in-the-midst-of-an-anxiety-epidemic-stress-increase. Anxiety about health, safety, and personal finances topped the list of those responding to the APA poll—with percentages in the high 60s for each—while 56% cited the impact of politics on their daily lives. Nearly 40% said they felt more anxious now than they did in 2017. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/apa-public-opinion-poll-annual-meeting-2018.

And here’s the second: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the lovely, gentle film about Fred Rogers, a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister whose Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series on PBS uplifted and reassured a generation of children and their parents, has raked in more than $20 million since its June 8 opening. That figure makes it the highest grossing biographical documentary—and one of the top 15 nonfiction films—of all time. PBS plans to show it early next year.

In addition, Tom Hanks (who else?) will star in a film titled You Are My Friend, reportedly based on a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and a tough-minded journalist who, obligated to do a profile of Mister Rogers, found the experience transformative. The extraordinary profile by Tom Junod appeared in Esquire in 1998 and was reprinted last year. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

I’m not suggesting that Mister Rogers, even in his persona as the benevolent despot King Friday, could perform miracles in these troubled times, serving as a balm for all that ails us. One of the most difficult parts of the film for me was the noisy picketing of his memorial service by anti-gay activists enraged by his tolerance of gay people. And he clearly suffered a sense of inadequacy in trying to explain events such as 9/11 and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to his young viewers.

But I wonder how he would deal with some of the sources of Americans’ anxiety today. One finding of the APA poll was that 36% of respondents are “extremely anxious” about “keeping myself or my family safe.” Of great interest to me is that when all participants in the poll were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Gun violence, including violence from mass shootings, is a public health threat,” 87% either strongly or somewhat agreed. Similarly, 85% strongly or somewhat agreed that “Congress should do more to address the issue of gun violence, including violence from mass shootings.”

How would Mister Rogers talk to children about school shootings? I’m sure he would have found a way, perhaps including his oft-quoted guidance: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” (In the Esquire profile, Junod does describe Mister Rogers’ reactions following a school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, pre-Columbine, when such a horror was an isolated case.)

And would he have felt compelled to take a public position on the matter? Thinking of the extraordinary moment when, through the force of his quiet personality, he persuaded a skeptical Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island to agree to a $20 million grant to fund public television, I wonder how Mister Rogers might have been received if he’d requested permission to testify before Congress about ways to prevent gun violence.

Would he have been permitted to testify? Would his words have broken through the partisan divide and moved legislators to action? So much of his testimony before Pastore’s Senate subcommittee resonates today that it’s worth viewing and re-viewing. This is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKy7ljRr0AA.

Here’s where I see the two items I began with converging. It’s true the APA survey was just one poll, a representative sample of 1004 US adults, but 33% identified themselves as either Republican or leans Republican, 41% as Democrat or leans Democrat, and 23% as Independents.

Numerous other sources also attest to both our nation’s heightening anxiety and broad public interest in government’s role in combatting gun violence. So in our highly polarized society, I derive some comfort from seeing that in at least some circumstances, we Americans have more in common than we tend to believe is the case.

That brings me to the remarkable success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m not sure if there’s any way to find out the demographics of those who are flocking to see it, but I do know that its director, Morgan Neville, has been traveling around the world in an effort to discern why his film has affected people so deeply, “and it’s not just the usual liberal arthouse crowd,” writes Anne Thompson in IndieWire. https://indiewire.com/2018/07/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-documentary-fred-rogers-morgan-neville-oscars-1201978654/.

Neville told Thompson that he was prompted to make the film about Mister Rogers when he thought about his childhood and wondered “Where are the grownups in our culture? He was the consummate voice I’d been craving…He was empathetic, he was looking out for our long-term well-being. It was more: ‘How can we have a cultural conversation with his voice in it?’ It was not about the man, but about his ideas.”

When the APA President, Anita Everett, MD, presented her organization’s findings about our anxious nation, she said the poll “highlights the need to help reduce the effects of stress with regular exercise, relaxation, healthy eating, and time with family and friends.” I’m sure that’s sound guidance, but I also think it’s incomplete.

And what’s missing is what makes me feel encouraged by the responses to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the APA poll’s questions about gun violence. They both show what seems to have been misplaced these days and, I believe, we would do well to emphasize: the commonality of our needs as human beings.

I say this while readily acknowledging that there are, and always have been, some among us who are beyond the reach of this concept. But I believe their voices have been amplified beyond their numbers.

“Rogers understood that on some level all any of us wants is to know that we’re okay,” writes Todd VanDerWerff in “9 times Mister Rogers said exactly the right thing,” published in Vox. “And because he was so good at seeming to believe everybody was, indeed, okay, he could connect with our need for empathy and hope.” https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/23/15681060/mr-rogers-quotes-mister-rogers.

In the IndieWire interview, Morgan Neville says: “I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness…It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: it is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”

Mister Rogers has shown us the way. Without him, I believe, while it’s fine to search for the new “grownups in our culture,” I can imagine Mister Rogers handing out lots and lots of mirrors, so that we can accept, and act upon, the knowledge that the responsibility falls on each of us.

Your thoughts?

Annie

15 thoughts on “Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?

  1. Annie ….
    I love your closing………… One of my responsibilities while working for Procter & Gamble was to travel to manufacturing plants and facilitate Diversity Workshops. At the closing of the workshop we handed out mirrors while playing Micheal Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” in the background!
    Dennis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Dennis–and you sure are a quick reader! Your response came in so soon after I’d hit “publish.” I shall keep your Diversity Workshops experience in mind, and hope I can connect with you about the topic at some point in the near future.

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  2. Great post, Anne. This country sorely needs more radical kindness to combat the egomania and ignorance currently emanating from the White House. Fred Rogers’ voice is sorely missed. Looking forward to his resurrection via Tom Hanks.

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    1. Thank you, Gail. I love the strength of the phrase “radical kindness,” though I wonder if Neville’s implication is that what we used to think of simply as kindness is no longer mainstream. And sadly, I guess I’m agreeing with him…

      As for Tom Hanks, do you think the film makers even considered anyone else to play that role? I’m hoping the Mister Rogers nostalgia continues for quite a while. Though he was unique, his emergence as a cultural icon clearly shows that he tapped into some vital human needs and offered us lessons and sensibilities to emulate.

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      1. I’m certain that Tom Hanks was the first choice to play Mr. Rogers. The only other actor who makes me think of Fred Rogers is Morgan Freeman. I’m glad that my children were young during The days of Mr. Rogers’ Neughborhood. So many valuable lessons in that show about kindness, acceptance, and diversity that, as you said, we need to emulate.

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  3. Many years ago I attended an annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatricians. I confess to a moment of cynicism when I saw that Fred Rogers was the keynote speaker (“Mr. Rogers? Seriously? I’m here to cover science!”). But then I noticed that almost every young (male or female) pediatrician in the audience was accompanied by a toddler. After the session, Rogers was mobbed by adoring physicians and their offspring, and he stayed until every hand was shaken and every young head was patted. I can’t imagine even an acting talent equal to Hanks’ being able to convey Rogers’ learning that a presidential administration favored putting children in cages.

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    1. Barbara,

      Your striking juxtaposition of those two images is a powerful reminder of why we, the people, must not be immobilized by anxiety or a sense of powerlessness. When I think of commonality that cuts across our divisions, I believe that regardless of differences about immigration policy, there is a widely shared sense that so cruelly and, in some cases, irreparably separating families is an abomination that must be continually addressed and never forgotten. In fact, a Quinnipiac University poll in June found 66% of respondents opposed the policy and only 27% supported it.

      We probably won’t see Tom Hanks tackle the issue in the film next year, which focuses on a friendship, but here are views he expressed about immigration in 2017: “I have no problems with throwing crooks in jail, whether they’re citizens or not…But if the only thing they’ve ever done is they kept their nose clean, dodged the feds until they become citizens of the United States because they want to be free citizens of one of the few countries in the world that guarantee that status, more power to them…The rules have to change.” (HuffPost, 4/10/17)

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  4. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog. In an age of rants, you offer reason–and who better to exemplify it than Mr. Rogers. Alas, I doubt that he’d find welcome in the Neighborhood today. With everyone–big and little–glued to their video screens and cell phones, the only way to catch someone’s attention seems to be by shouting or tweeting. I wish you luck in keeping the conversation going.

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    1. Claire,

      Thank you for the encouragement. I’ll grant you some neighborhoods wouldn’t be receptive to Mister Rogers today, but look what Morgan Neville (director of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) accomplished. He tapped into something that seems to be both widespread and deep. Amid all the shouting and tweeting (perhaps because of them), there seem to be millions–apparently worldwide, based on the film’s distribution–who want to turn down the volume and recapture some of Mister Rogers’ reasonableness and kindness.

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  5. Annie – another thoughtful, beautifully expressed piece from you.

    Like so many others, I loved the Mister Rodgers film. Profound and moving. I also agree that it’s not an accident that in these anxious times the film is a runaway hit! It’s a testament to how we all must be craving the calm, reassuring wisdom he provided; in fact, I had all but forgotten it was possible to feel soothed.

    It rang true for me as well that all any of us really wants to know is that we’ll be okay. Boy, such a large idea and yet such a small, simple hope – the lowest common denominator to being human. Spanning all division – gender, race, politics, religion, economics, you name it – we want to know we’ll be okay. But here’s the rub: we won’t be okay unless we overtly work on it. We can use Fred’s “quiet voice” – certainly he achieved a lot with it – but we have to speak. We have to act. We have to practice kindness. The strong among us have to step forward and lead. The rest of us, whatever our skills, have to do our part. We are the adults now as the mirror confirms, so it falls to us to be one of “the helpers” that Fred promised his young listeners were always there. Maybe it’s not as hard as it sounds? Maybe it starts with a small act, then another, and another . . . ?

    Thanks for your work, Annie. Much appreciated.

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    1. Denise,

      Thanks so very much–both for your kind words–and for what I think of as your “call to kindly arms.” We are indeed “the helpers.” You are reinforcing my optimism, which is so essential for us to retain if we are to remain whole and sane and up to forging the changes we know must be made.

      Annie

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