Sunday Morning

Often people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness. That’s what happens to the audiences of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the new documentary about Fred Rogers.

The documentary demonstrates how Rogers’s children’s show got started and how he used it over 30 years to teach and accompany children. It describes the famous opening sequence — Mister Rogers going to the closet, putting on the sweater, changing his shoes. It describes how he gently gave children obvious and nonobvious advice: You are special just the way you are; no, children can’t fall down the drains in the bathtub.

Sometimes he would slow down time, be silent for long periods as he fed his fish. Occasionally “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” touched politics. During the civil rights era, when black kids were being thrown out of swimming pools, Rogers and a black character bathed their feet together in a tub. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, Rogers gently explained what an assassination was.

There’s nothing obviously moving here, and yet the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.

Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.

But there’s also something more radical going on. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.

Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.

The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.

Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

~ David Brooks, from “Fred Rogers and the Loveliness of the Little Good” (NY Times, July 5, 2018)


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