Rev. Yme Woensdregt
I went to an absolutely wondrous and luminous movie last Friday — “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood”. It is inspired by an article written by Tom Junod and published in Esquire magazine called “Can You Say … Hero?” about the relationship he developed with Fred Rogers (portrayed beautifully by Tom Hanks) as he interviewed Mister Rogers for this article.
Named in the film as Lloyd Vogel, this reporter is portrayed as a deeply cynical man who can’t believe that there are kind people in the world. When he is assigned to profile beloved icon Mr. Rogers for a short piece about “inspirational people”, Vogel is disgusted at the assignment, calling it a puff piece, and resists doing it. His editor doesn’t give him a choice.
When he tells his wife about the assignment, she says, “Lloyd, please … don’t ruin my childhood!” It tells you something about the man. His reputation is that he seeks to find cracks in people which he can exploit in order to trash their reputation. In Mister Rogers, however, he discovers a man who really is as nice as he seems to be. He tells his wife, “He’s just about the nicest person I’ve ever met. I just don’t know if he’s for real.” She responds, “In your mouth, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.”
As the movie continues, he is slowly drawn into a caring and loving way of looking at the world. At times, Mister Rogers comes too close for Vogels’ comfort, and he pulls away. But slowly, inexorably, he’s drawn into Mister Rogers’ way.
In a line which has stayed with me all week long, Mister Rogers tells Vogel, “We are trying to give the world positive ways of dealing with its feelings.”
In many ways, Fred Rogers was a man of courage and inspiration. He spoke openly about difficult life experiences as death, illness, divorce. He helped children to see themselves as people who are beautiful just the way they are. He invited all kinds of children to his show, and he treated them with love and dignity. In one memorable episode, he talked with a child in a wheelchair due to polio. Mister Rogers talked with Jeff openly about his childhood and its difficulties, and together they sang what become his theme song:
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“It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you — Not the things that hide you, not your toys, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like, every part of you, your skin, your eyes, your feelings whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue that it’s you I like, It’s you yourself, It’s you, it’s you I like.”
But it wasn’t just a feel–good, tug–at–your–heart–strings kind of show. He also tackled controversial subjects. Another memorable episode aired at a time when the civil rights movement was in the news in the USA. At a time when there were still drinking fountains for white people and separate fountains for “colored people”, Rogers invited the black police officer on his show to cool his feet in the same wading pool with himself.
Late in the movie, Vogel says to Rogers, “You love broken people like me.” Rogers looks at him with deep compassion and says, “I don’t think you were broken. Sometimes we have to ask for help, and that’s ok. I think that sometimes the best thing we can do is to let people know that each one of them is precious.”
That’s the heart of the movie. “It’s you I like … just the way you are”. The movie shows, I think, what might be possible if we only dared to live that way.
When I was a young parent, one of the things that drove me crazy about the show was how slowly paced it was. The movie also is deliberately set at that same slow pace. Back then, I was a busy young man, trying to forge a career, trying to get things done, trying to get ahead, trying to care for a growing family.
These days, I’m an older and (hopefully) wiser man. I have come to be grateful for Mister Rogers’ help in slowing down. Life is insanely busy for so many of us—much too busy. As I watched the movie, I began to see again that that’s not always a good thing.
It’s like a practice which Buddhists call “mindfulness”. How important it is for us to become more deeply aware of each moment, each person, each thing, each event and to live fully in that moment. Mister Rogers saw every person, every beautiful person, and for the time he was with them, that person was the only reality in the world. He drew us all into a peaceful, life–affirming world which moved according to its own special rhythms.
Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, saw this as his ministry—to affirm all people in their own God–given beloved identity, to remind us all of the beauty we can find in life if only we look, to exercise our imaginations, and to find a rhythm for our lives which reflects the practices of grace and compassion.
Finally, the movie reminded me that one of the puppets in Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was named King Friday, the 13th. This Friday the 13th seemed like an opportune time to talk about one of my heroes … not King Friday, but Fred Rogers.
I wonder, sometimes, how much better our world would be if we all learned what Fred Rogers knew. Go see the movie.