I hate finding pictures from my childhood. I’ll be cruising through a photo album and it’s like being blindsided by a 300 pound tackle. Speaking of 300 pounds…
I was a fat, lonely kid with a lousy home life and no friends. Seriously, none. A slew of allergies, asthma and a particularly weird skin ailment that made me break out whenever sweating (seriously – I was allergic to my own perspiration) kept me indoors far too much. No, I wasn’t quite the “boy in the plastic bubble”…but close enough.
I did ride my bike a lot, especially during the cool autumn and early spring months in North Alabama. But those allergies meant no team sports, so I missed out on most of the bonding experiences other boys enjoyed. Far too much of my time was spent indoors, alone.
My mom used to drive all over town and try to find just one unsuspecting kid who would fall for whatever bribes she offered to spend an afternoon with me. If their parents were gullible enough to take the bait, for that afternoon their child would be immersed into my little fantasy world of old movies and music.
Needless to say, once they survived the experience, they rarely ever returned and mom had to work the phone again.
I know this sounds like the backstory for a serial killer: the neighbors later said, “He was a quiet kid, always stayed to himself. And we just thought all that digging in his back yard meant he had a green thumb…” But in spite of that trajectory, I managed to grow up and become a fairly functional adult.
How did I overcome my challenges? Simple – Fred Rodgers.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood was my salvation. I watched him every day, and “Misterogers” was my best friend. He told me I was special, even when my own father didn’t seem to want me around. He taught me how to be a friend and get along with people, even those from different backgrounds than mine. His positive smile taught me there was nothing to be afraid of in these differences, but that they were worthy of celebration. I learned from him that another person’s talents or opinions in no way diminished my own.
Yeah, I know it sounds a little syrupy. But for a lonely boy growing up with a very angry father figure, Fred Rogers taught me that manhood didn’t have to come with a threatening tone and disgusted look. And somewhere between the cold distancing of my father and the warm acceptance of Mr. Rogers, I discovered the kind of man I wanted to be.
Fred was clearly a fascinating person. An ordained Presbyterian minister, we’ve now discovered he collected troubled people like others collect seashells. He spent inordinate amounts of time with those who had nothing at all to offer him, and befriended people simply because he could tell they needed him. And while he had a private life with his family, the testimonies of almost everyone who really knew him agree that he was pretty much the same man in private whom you saw on your TV screen as a child.
I guess it’s because of those years of learning from Fred Rogers that I grew to value kindness. But the power of his big smile and open heart seem lost in this current generation. Perhaps he was the subject of one too many SNL sketches. His love seems too simplistic and wide-eyed for our cynical world to take seriously.
Sadly, I believe kindness is seen today as weakness. We see it as our political campaigns swirl down the disposals of insult, innuendo, and accusation. Candidates of opposing parties used to be able to muster grudging respect for the presumed patriotism of the other side. It’s breathtaking to me, and I have no idea what the remedy could be.
Have we gone beyond the point of no return? Maybe.
But the way forward seems so easy to me, if we’d only take it. I’ve been around lots of people from different backgrounds. I have lots of dear friends of other faiths, or even no faith. I never back down or compromise on what I believe in order to conform to them—they all know where I stand. We simply treat each other with respect and kindness like Fred treated all his guests who dropped by his TV home.
From Fred’s complete acceptance of anyone and everyone, I’ve learned to value people more than the opinions they hold. You’d have to try pretty hard to be Fred Roger’s enemy.
My question is: if Fred Rogers could love almost anybody, why can’t we?
In the current climate, it is getting tougher and tougher to “disagree agreeably.” If you disagree with me, then you must hate me. This constant “drawing of lines in the sand” is merely “idol worship” where we expect everyone to bow to what we believe.
Without trying to overstate things, I believe it’s destroying our nation…and our souls.
In the past couple of years, two movies have been released about Fred: one a documentary and the other a drama with Tom Hanks. It’s clear from their reception that people adore “Misterogers.” What I can’t grasp is why so few are determined to live like him.
I remember finding an old record album of Mister Rogers when I was 18. I had picked up a handful of LPs from home to bring with me to college, and it had accidentally snuck into the pile. I remember my roommate and I laughing our way through it, drawing hundreds of innuendos from his innocent little songs. I eventually threw it away, not wanting anyone to find it and think I still liked it.
Today, I’d give anything to have that album back.
In this angry world, we can use all the Mister Rogers we can get.
Photo credit: https://tvseriesfinale.com