If you’re of certain age, and you grew up in the US with access to PBS, the slow, friendly drawl of Fred Rogers was probably a rite of passage for you. From 1968 to 2001, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a staple of television for millions upon millions of kids, and Mr. Rogers himself maintained the same soft-spoken, kindly demeanor with nary a wobble between those who were of an age to watch his first episode, to those who saw his last.
His kindness and compassion were -- and are -- legendary, and though he has been occasionally mocked in popular culture, if you sincerely hate Mr. Rogers, I am going to be a little scared of you. It’s like hating kittens, rainbows, or love.
My Mr. Rogers experience dates back to some of my earliest memories, although it was my mom -- “His voice is SO RELAXING!” -- who was initially enamored of him. I preferred Big Bird and Sesame Street. It took me a little longer to appreciate his show. If you’ve never seen it -- well, if you’ve never seen it, HIE THEE TO YOUTUBE. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a slow-moving, epically chill children’s show that took place half in the “real” neighborhood where Mr. Rogers lived, and half in a “make-believe” neighborhood of puppets, and an obsession-worthy trolley.
Oddly, when tiny Lesley finally came around to get on the Mr. Rogers’ bandwagon, I wasn’t as fond of the make-believe parts, which is unexpected as I spent fully 90% of my childhood with a running third-person narration inside my head, explaining how I was secretly a spy or a time-traveler or an alien, or imagining that the world around me was actually a futuristic place a thousand years in the future, or a distant planet.
No, tiny Lesley was most into the excruciatingly mundane aspects of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. I was deeply invested in which hanger Mr. Rogers would pull from the closet to hang up his coat and change into a sweater at the beginning of every episode, and if today’s sweater was the red one, well, that was a very good day. I also become deliriously ecstatic when Mr. Rogers fed his fish. Sure, I loved Henrietta Pussycat and Daniel Striped Tiger with the best of them, but it was these small, routine occurances that put me in a sort of sublime and contented trance state.
Mr. Rogers had two primary messages for his children viewers -- and for adults who happened to be watching as well. The first, often repeated throughout the decades, is that we should strive to accept and like ourselves, just the way we are, even if we don’t always meet the cultural and social expectations the world places on us.
And the second is that we should focus on liking and caring for others just they way they are as well, and that kindness to one another is paramount to being good humans, and making a beautiful world for everyone to live in.
They’re such simple, straightforward, even painfully obvious ideas, but they nevertheless have the power to be revolutionary if we can take them to heart. And Mr. Rogers wasn’t about portraying a world in which terrible things never happen, and everyone can be hearts and rainbows all the time if they simply try hard enough -- quite the opposite. As he says in “The World According to Mr Rogers":
"Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it."
The truth is, we need one another, especially when our lives are complicated and difficult. Why make things harder by being needlessly cruel?
Mr. Rogers died in 2003, two months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was 74, which still seems like too few years for such a unique and caring individual to have been with us, but that’s all we had the good fortune to get. His messages of self-love, patience, compassion and unwavering acceptance of the breadth of human diversity influenced me enormously, as I’m sure they impacted millions of today’s adults. Even if we’ve somehow forgotten all that along the way.
And like Mr. Rogers, I like you just the way you are.