Last week I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary on Mister Rogers. It was amazing. For more than half of the movie my jaw was, quite literally, dropped. I was sitting there in the theater, mouth hanging wide open. I was astonished at how amazing of a person Fred Rogers was.
If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading right now and go see it.
I have admired Mister Rogers for some years now, ever since I began paying more attention to him while in seminary. But I didn’t really get a full grasp of his impressiveness until watching this movie.
Fred Rogers, a modern saint if there ever was one, was so astute, intuitive, and brilliantly attuned to what people needed to hear at a gut, soul level. He specifically focused his energy on children, but I think in the process spoke to all of us. After all, we’re all children just trying to figure out how to grow up.
He was unwavering in his core message that every person is capable of loving and capable of being loved. That’s pretty much all he said, in different ways, for decades.
As I was watching the film I kept thinking how incredibly simple this message is, and because of that simplicity how good it is. And that’s exactly what this message is; good.
For his entire life and career on television, Fred Rogers was doing nothing but sharing the Good News.
But what really stunned me was that this Good News, though incredibly simple, was simultaneously complex and sophisticated and deep!
There was serious depth. There is hard work that must be done to get to the simple Truth that you are loving and lovable.
One fact of Fred Rogers’s life that I found fascinating was that he was a part of a groundbreaking research initiative in child developmental psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. This research institute included huge names in developmental psychology like (my favorite) Erik Erickson.
Fred Rogers was involved in this group, doing the necessary work to understand who he was talking to and how he needed to articulate his message of love in order for them to hear it.
The work of discovering and naming what it is that I need to hear and believe about myself is long and difficult.
Yet it is essential to do this work.
The work of discovering and articulating what it is that others need to hear is complex and multi-faceted.
Yet it is essential to do this work.
To be lovable—capable of being loved—is to love myself and allow others to love me.
To be loving—capable of offering love—is to love others in a way that they can understand and internalize.
Both tasks require hard work in order to do well.
Fred Rogers had clearly internalized this simple truth for himself and had done the hard work to be able to simply articulate it for others.
I wonder if this is why he seems so extraordinary. We are so impressed with the life and message of Mister Rogers because it is so drastically different from our everyday experience. He did the work that we so rarely do and, as a result, lived on a plain of existence and relationship that we don’t recognize, even though we are drawn to it like a magnet.
I wonder if the vast majority of us never do the hard work of coming to believe that we are in fact capable of being loved and the hard work of clearly and effectively loving others. I wonder if we avoid this necessary, inevitably painful work of self-discovery because we are afraid of what we might find.
I think the on-going legacy of Fred Rogers, and ultimately of Christ himself, is that to be human is to do the hard work because to be human is to love and be loved. Mister Rogers was not extraordinary for what he did, he was extraordinary because of what he did.
It was his hard work of fearlessly believing that he was indeed capable of loving and being loved that made Mister Rogers extraordinary. All of us are capable of doing the same. In fact, that is what Fred Rogers was telling us the whole time.
So may you do the hard work necessary to discover the depth of the simple truth of love.
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