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Lessons from Mr. Rogers

Bill Fox

Bill Fox

By Bill Fox/Columnist

I recently watched the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which is now available for rental in local libraries.

As a young college student, when Fred Rogers saw television for the first time, he hated it. People were throwing pies in each other’s faces, and Fred found that demeaning. Nonetheless, he instantly sensed television’s capacity for connection and enrichment. That moment changed his life.

Here are some lessons I learned from the documentary.

  1. It’s okay to feel whatever it is that we feel but our feelings aren’t an excuse for bad behaviour

When Fred was asked about television’s responsibility is to children, he replied, “To give them everything that we possibly can to help them grow in healthy ways, and to help them to recognize that they can be angry and not have to hurt themselves or anybody else. That they can have the full range of feelings and express them in very healthy, positive ways.”

  1. Other people are different from us—and just as complex as we are

In a time when people on the political left and the right dread family reunions with each other, we’re aware of differences between people. Our media diets, our social media feeds, and even our personal relationships lock us into groups of like-minded people, where it’s easy to demonize and oversimplify those with whom we disagree. However,  tempted as we may be to call others “bad,” and ourselves “good,” all of us are more than we seem. Fred Rogers’ favourite quote from his favourite book was “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

  1. It’s our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable

He believed in and worked every day to emulate Jesus, who welcomed children, loved us just the way we are, and called us to love ourselves and our neighbour. Fred took seriously the scripture mandate to care for the most vulnerable. He worked with prisons to create child-friendly spaces for family visitations, sat on hospital boards to minimize trauma in children’s healthcare, visited people who were sick or dying, and wrote countless letters to the lonely.

  1. We can work to make a difference right where we are

Fred’s work for the greater good did not take the form of marching, rallying, or picketing. He set up a pool and Officer Clemmons (played by black, gay actor Francois Clemmons) soaked his feet and shared his towel. Marching, writing, calling, and organizing are all good ways to make change, but Fred’s life reminds us that we can work for the well being of the most vulnerable wherever we may be, in whatever work we do. In other words, “There are many ways to say I love you.”

  1. It’s important to make time to care for ourselves

Wherever he was, he began each morning with prayer and a Bible reading, followed by lap swimming at the local athletic club. Fred also made time almost every day to sit and play the piano.

  1. We are neighbours

Mister Rogers didn’t call his audience “friends” or “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen.” He called us neighbours. “Neighbour” is biblical language, which Fred knew well. When Mister Rogers called us neighbours, when he hosted us in his own neighbourhood for more than 30 years, he was calling us – gently but firmly – out of our structures of power and our silos of sameness, into lives of mercy and care for one another.

Admittedly, maybe he was overly optimistic. He believed that if he got to us while we were young, if he told us again and again that we were good, that we were lovable, and that we could extend mercy, maybe we could grow into real neighbours to one another. Maybe we still can.

I’m at if you need a neighbour.