On Becoming Mister Rogers || Talon

I remember the moment I realized I was afraid of making eye contact with others. I was cornered in the hall in middle school by a counselor who meant well, but his gaze was just too much for me. As he asked me about my classes, I could feel myself crumbling under the weight of his presence, and the anxiety I felt manifested itself in looking in any direction but his. Even now, I still find my eyes darting away from the eyes of others and into the corners of rooms when I'm asked personal questions. I was a socially awkward and painfully shy preteen, and I have spent the past decade learning how to counteract the part of me that wants to stay hidden, stay in the periphery, and stay unseen. Eye contact has a way of making one feel exposed and unprotected.

This is one of the many, many reasons I am enthralled with the person of Mister Rogers. When he looked into my eyes through the TV screen, he was somehow able to transcend the shame of being exposed and made me feel valuable and seen. I want to learn his ways.

It is 2018, and sappy nostalgia for Mister Rogers is at an all-time high. A documentary just came out about his life, and there is even a new biopic in the works starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. I remember spending early mornings with Mister Rogers on PBS, and to this day, I can't help but smile when I think about the sound of the tiny trolley from the show. Somehow, this middle-aged man who spoke to children through a television screen left a mark that refuses to be forgotten. What is it about him? What is it about this man who slowly and surely engaged the imaginations of so many by slowly putting on sweaters and house shoes?

In my adult eyes, Mister Rogers is the most unmarketable persona I can think of. If he were to emerge in media today on YouTube or otherwise, I can think of a few outcomes which may come as a result of his generally friendly countenance:

  • he would be essentially "written off" as a strange man and given few second looks;

  • he would become culturally relevant the same way eating Tide Pods entered the zeitgeist - his memeworthy quirks would gain him international fame overnight and countless ironic iterations of his work would be referenced and enjoyed by the internet;

  • he would be metaphorically driven out of town by those who believe his message of "liking people just the way they are" is a lukewarm, watered-down version of the truth that people need.

Somehow, he graced television sets at just the right time to avoid (at least most of) these outcomes. He single-handedly saved public television, gave children freedom to be themselves, and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by providing sunshine in the simple packaging of kindness and listening and eye contact. Isn't it wonderful that we can express our enjoyment of others in such simple and normal ways? Isn't it beautiful to know that we have the capacity to provide a sense of rescue to those around us with kind words and hugs?

I can understand if those sentiments fall flat to you. I've been there. The baseline culture of hustle doesn't really give us permission to feel sadness, or pain, or fear, and it certainly doesn't allow us to treat our inherent humanity as a reason to be worthy of love. Our surroundings can tweak our sense of true authenticity. When my B.S.-meter is stuck on high alert, it becomes so difficult to believe that others truly have the capacity to see our value. It is so easy to be disillusioned with everything once one become disillusioned with the intent of others.

In a way, I think Mister Rogers reflected the heart of God when he he sang "I like you as you are, exactly and precisely, I think you turned out nicely, and I like you as you are". It reminds me of the point in the Bible when Jesus is baptized and, before he had done any signs and wonders and teachings, a voice from heaven said "this is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Jesus had not yet done anything sensational to earn his Belovedness, and yet God was pleased with him.

Henri Neowen, an author and Catholic priest wrote about the idea of his own struggle with the source of his worth in this way: "Though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being that says: 'You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.' That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices saying: 'Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire'" (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved).

Mister Rogers looked directly into our eyes and told us we are valuable regardless of our successes. Maybe this sentiment feels like freedom, but maybe it feels like a punch to the gut. I know you, Berkeley student. I know you because I am just like you. I know that your work to become sensational has brought you to the place you are now. Perhaps you are still on a journey to find your worth in actions or accomplishments. I give you permission to relinquish the search for significance through own own works and to accept your Belovedness. You are free to separate yourself from the thing you have used as the engine to your success and your shame. You are free to experience belonging in this neighborhood.

As you listen to the clip below, I want you consider how you have experienced the perspective of Daniel Tiger and how you might speak to your pain and the pain of others the way Lady Aberlin does:

Lady Aberlin sings, "You're not a fake, you're not a mistake, you're my friend." With an affirmation of friendship, she engages with Daniel Tiger's doubt. The act of inviting others in is not sensational, but it is an act which can lead to flourishing even in the worst of circumstances. The words "I love you" and "I care about you" never come as bad news to weary ears, and they are invitations to engage with our pain and integrate it as part of our healing. I have to remind myself of this truth. As I write, I think of one of my best friends who is experiencing grief in the slow deterioration of his father's body due to terminal cancer. In this season, I have subconsciously avoided my best friend because I've been afraid that I am unable to be profoundly helpful in any way. After all, how could I possibly be a part of solving such great pain? But he isn't looking for great depth or insight from me - he just wants to know that I'm with him, I love him, and I care about him.

As stewards of the Gospel, we not only get to internalize our own value as chosen, loved, adopted children of God, but we also have the gift of transmitting this sense of belonging to others. Instead of asking Jesus "Who is my neighbor?" like the lawyer in Luke 10, I want to be like the compassionate Samaritan in the parable. I want to be the one who says, "Won't you be my neighbor?"I

Today, I'm praying that you would be a part of letting people belong in your neighborhood, just like Fred Rogers allowed us to belong in his. Every single person you have ever met wants to be loved and to know they are lovable. May you become an instrument of God's mercy through Samaritan care and Rogerian hospitality, and may you be a part of the beauty which makes today "a beautiful day in this neighborhood."

[To see Mister Roger’s Incredible and simple Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech, click here:]