How to Value People Like Mister Rogers
by Andrew Hocking
NOTE: Fred Rogers continues to receive media attention beyond the documentary discussed here. Tom Hanks will be portraying Mr. Rogers in an upcoming movie, “You Are My Friend”
The new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, reveals how Mister Rogers valued others. If you’ve never watched his television shows, you can still learn from his example and see how a thoroughly consistent life ethic transforms how we view others and even ourselves.
A Deep Consistency
Towards the end of the documentary, the film notes that many people criticized Rogers’ message of affirmation. A few clips, including one from Fox News, argued that telling children they were special led to an entitlement mentality. Commenters proposed an alternate message, “If you wanna be special, you’re gonna have to work hard.” I suspect some of these individuals, especially if they’re on Fox News, would self-identify as pro-life. But doesn’t being pro-life require the belief in human dignity, or being special, apart from our actions? The hypocrisy and inconsistency astound.
In contrast, Rogers presented a consistent political message. In the middle of the Vietnam War, the first week of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood exposed the folly of militarism (and of building walls due to fear) while also demonstrating successful peaceful opposition. Later, when the news reported a white man pouring acid into a pool with black swimmers, Rogers and the African-American Officer Clemmons soaked their feet together in a children’s pool.
I truly believe the Consistent Life Network (CLN) proclaims a consistent political philosophy, but Fred Rogers’ message goes deeper than politics. Instead, his belief in human dignity was fundamental to how he viewed others and himself. With disdain towards most children’s’ television, Rogers intentionally offered an alternative, not only to violent cartoons, but to any clowning around that makes a person the butt of the joke.
Instead, Mister Rogers affirms, “You always make each day such a special day. You know how—by just your being you. There’s only one person in the whole world like you. And people can like you just the way you are.” In the documentary, the actor who played Officer Clemmons, Francois Clemmons, recollects when he truly realized Fred Rogers loved him just as he is. It took two years of hearing him say it, but when he grasped the affection, Rogers became like a surrogate father to him.
Rogers’ influence flowed from his consistency, his integrity. He truly cared. His compassion and empathy shined in his smile, soft voice, patient listening, and bold proclamations of value.
At last year’s CLN conference, my wife picked up a sticker produced by CLN member group Rehumanize International. The sticker featured the word “sonder” and the definition, “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” This is worth contemplating, frequently.
In a similar vein, I’m the father of a toddler and I’m continually amazed by him, amazed by the gut knowledge that he’s incomprehensibly valuable. At the same time, I realize it’s not only him. Every person matches his importance.
An ordained minister, Rogers’ spirituality shaped how he viewed others. I am someone who shares his faith, and I believe my feelings towards my son echo only a fraction of how God feels towards each person. I endeavor to purposefully view people as being as beloved as my son.
Let’s not stop short at valuing lives before the law but strive to consistently value others in every interaction. Let us do what we must to ingrain this belief into our thoughts and words.
The Hardest Person to Value
Perhaps the final step of our consistency is to believe we, as individuals, have value. In one clip, Daniel Tiger confesses to Lady Aberlin that he worries he is a mistake. Politically, we defend the lives of the unborn when others would label them a mistake, but do we secretly wonder if we ourselves are a mistake? Rogers understood how commonplace insecurity is among children as well as adults.
Many of you have worked tirelessly on behalf of those who have been considered expendable. You know they—the unborn, the inmate, the refugee, the minority—have dignity and are worth being fought for. So are you. You deserve the love you’ve poured out for others, and not because of anything you’ve done. You just do.
Some of us need to sonder. Perhaps others of us need to do the opposite and acknowledge our own unconditional dignity as we’ve done for others.
Being a Neighbor like Mister Rogers
Watch or rewatch Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Go see the new documentary.
More importantly, reflect on your value and the value of others. Ground your political beliefs and personal interactions in a deep worldview. Personally, I find that as I seek to know and understand God, I can see others (and myself) from His loving perspective.
Lastly, be like Fred Rogers, and communicate to others that they are valuable, not because of what they do, but because of who they are. In The World According to Mister Rogers, he writes, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique to all time.”
Andrew Hocking writes about spirituality in movies, TV, and books and frequently discusses politics from a consistent life perspective.
See also our blog post on his commentary on Doctor Who.
Thanks for this insightful commentary on Won’t you be my neighbor. Most importantly, Mr. Rogers is a exemplary role model for everyone that wants to live a consistent life.