“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” starring Fred Rogers, aired for over 30 years and impacted generations of children. I count myself as one of those children. Mister Rogers used his gentle and empathetic demeanor throughout his career to inspire and instruct his young audience, even while tackling challenging or controversial topics. So many will remember March 20 as his birthday; I wish more of the world would remember the lessons he tried to teach us.
Mister Rogers believed that everyone had inherent value, and because of that value, they should be heard and understood. This even includes people we disagree with. Contrary to many children’s programming, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is full of people (or puppets) who don’t always get along. They want different things. They have different ideas. And those differences led to conflict and hurt emotions. I frequently remember Mister Rogers solving these conflicts not by deciding who was right and wrong, but by getting everyone to hear, understand, and, ultimately, empathize with the other person.
I have a habit of “winning” my arguments by outdebating the other person. But Mister Rogers reminds me that winning an argument rarely means getting my way. I’ve learned that the thing most people argue about is not the thing they are arguing about. What people really want is to be heard, seen, and understood. Once they have these things, they don’t often need whatever they are fighting for. When I practice empathy, I can give a person what they really need and often defuse whatever caused the fight in the first place. I would love to see a few more posts going viral because of empathy rather than anger and outrage.
Kind People Are Tough as Nails
Kindness is the first characteristic viewers often see when they tune into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He smiled, spoke softly, said kind words and encouraged kind actions. But what took me until adulthood to realize was just how strong a person has to be in order to be kind. It takes incredible strength to respond to anger with patience, cruelty with understanding and evil with goodness. Wrath is an easy weapon to wield but kindness takes emotional muscles of steal.
I’m currently working through some really challenging family situations right now. Every day I’m tempted to lash out with anger, to give back the nasty words that are given to me and to return evil with evil. But I know that kindness is the only path that can possibly lead to healing and wholeness. Kindness is a heavier lift, but I also know it’s the strongest tool available to any of us. But that’s not the message we often hear in this world.
The Meek Win In the End
Meekness is not usually the defining characteristic of any superhero. But fans of Mister Rogers would insist that at least one hero deserved that label. He used his gentleness to break barriers that few others of his time ever dared. Perhaps most famously, when most of the nation would not allow black people the right to swim in a pool with white people, Fred Rogers invited François Clemmons, a black man, to visit his neighborhood. Viewers then watched as Clemmons and Fred Rogers both rested their bare feet in the same kiddie pool. And in case people missed his point, as they exited the pool Fred Rogers even bent down to help dry Clemmons’ feet. It was a calm, simple, and, yes, meek act, but one that won many hearts to his point of view.
Meekness is a word that Jesus used, as well. He said it was the meek who would inherit the world. And as Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to be crucified on a cross, the meek do, indeed, win in the end. It’s not brute strength and cruelty that will change the world. The meek heroes who aren’t afraid to use empathy and kindness will inspire change in future generations.