Still learning about life from Mr. Rogers

by Kristin on April 9, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by phrenzee

I watched a lot of Mister Rogers in the 1970s, when I was a kid, but I can’t say he’s crossed my mind much since. Nothing that he talked about really sticks in my mind. What I can recall are things like the tone of his voice, his cardigan sweaters, the “Won’t you be my neighbor” song, and the way he always changed his shoes (for me, that was the most fascinating, bizarre part of the whole show—no one in my life changed their shoes upon arriving at a destination).

I guess I must have liked Mister Rogers then, but from my perspective now, I would characterize him as rather bland—certainly not inspiring or radical. I recently read an article about him, though, that has changed my mind. Not only is Mister Rogers an inspiring character, but I think Christians in particular (myself included) could learn much from his life and actions.

First of all, am I the only person who didn’t realize Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister? Well he was. In some ways that information completely surprised me, but in other ways it make perfect sense. And I admire that about him—that he successfully rode that line. He didn’t just go and develop a faith-based show for an audience of Christian kids. Instead, he was able to come up with a plan that encompassed all the parts of who he was, without alienating the broad audience he desired to reach.

As soon as I started seeing Mister Rogers as a potential role model for my adult, Christian self, I kept finding other characteristics to emulate. Here are three more ways I think he can inspire and direct us:

1. Don’t avoid the aspects of culture you dislike.

Mister Rogers apparently got into doing television because he hated television. As the mental_floss article says, “The first time he turned one on, he saw people angrily throwing pies in each other’s faces. He immediately vowed to use the medium for better than that.” In his popular show he covered a range of important topics, from the small, everyday fears kids have to bigger issues, like war and divorce.

What part of culture do you dislike? How might you work to redeem it?

2. Work with the system to affect change.

Not only did Mister Rogers decide to create a quality TV program for kids, he essentially saved public television. The government was threatening to cut funding in 1969, so Mister Rogers went to Washington to testify on the importance of public broadcasting. Not only was funding not cut, it was increased. And Fred Rogers was a relatively unknown guy at the time. Miracles can happen, sometimes we just have to go to Washington (literally or figuratively) to do our part.

If you believe passionately in something, are there people and groups you could be sharing that passion with?

3. Be much more interested in others than you are in yourself.

That’s powerful. You know what it’s like to sit down with someone who seems genuinely interested in you. They ask lots of questions and are amazingly focused as they listen to your responses. They make you feel like you’re important—that you matter.

Mister Rogers apparently took this type of interest in others to another level. I love this story told in the mental_floss article:

Once, on a fancy trip up to a PBS exec’s house, he heard the limo driver was going to wait outside for 2 hours, so he insisted the driver come in and join them (which flustered the host). On the way back, Rogers sat up front, and when he learned that they were passing the driver’s home on the way, he asked if they could stop in to meet his family.

Isn’t that amazing? A person acts that way not because it’s “good for business,” but because he’s genuinely interested in others, no matter who they are.

Are there ways you could cultivate and demonstrate a more over-riding interest in others?

4. Calmly and consistently preach tolerance, every chance you get.

Apparently, Mister Rogers was not just an ordained minister, but he was also a man of deep personal faith (no, these two don’t always go hand-in-hand). Not surprisingly, as his show grew in popularity, many Christians saw opportunities to use Mister Roger’s influence to their advantage. Here’s how he responded, according to the article:

Whenever he was asked to castigate non-Christians or gays for their differing beliefs, he would instead face [those who were asking] and say, with sincerity, “God loves you just the way you are.” Often this provoked ire from fundamentalists.

I love that. Don’t get mad. Don’t get sucked in. Just be subtle, pointed and true.

How might you better respond to Christians who make assumptions about you, and generally rub you the wrong way?

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  • Ginny

    I too grew up watching Mr. Rogers and always loved his simple way of talking with and communicating to children.

    A friend recommended to me “The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor” which quickly became one of my most cherished books. When I begin to feel down about life, this book helps me to reclaim my spirit.

    He was a wonderful man who touched many through his calm spirit and faithful attention to doing what he could to make the lives of children better.

  • Susan

    I loved his sweaters and shoes. There was something so consistent about his attire, it was comforting.

    Also loved that Michael Keaton was once his stagehand.

  • Nicola

    Oh my, I LOVE Fred Rogers! He was a mentor to my previous boss at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum and so much of what we created there was due to his influence. He truly was an important voice for children in our culture! One of the highlights of my past job was meeting him and he was truly focused on me and who I was and what I did for the Museum. The feeling of being in that presence was incredible. Like meeting a saint or a prophet (I imagine…). He had real power, although he really was using it for good in the world. Thanks for taking me back!

  • Dave Thurston

    One of my favorite Fred Rogers quotes . . .

    While working to assist a local pre-winter coat drive for the needy. Mr. Rogers clarified that “we all are needy; it is just that these people currently need coats.”

    Brings it home in a brilliantly, honest way.

  • Walter

    I am not familiar with Mister Rogers but thank you for sharing some of his wisdom here. It is nice to learn from people who are blessed with humility and humbleness. :-)

  • dorie

    Oh, Mister Rogers. He is all the good.

  • Trina

    Very interesting Kristin, you see you have reached a broad audience here too. Even though your final question is Christian centred, I can still look at that and think about how tto respond to my teens, husband, friend, store clerk etc. The message of responding calmly, subtly, and especially without getting sucked in is something I need to be reminded of right now.
    I remember Mr. Rogers for his genteel ways, it’s nice to hear how that extended to all aspects of his life.

  • Kristin T.

    Ginny, I love getting book recommendations—thanks! I also really like how simply you described Mr. Rogers: his “calm spirit and faithful attention.” Those are two things I could really stand to focus on, as I zoom around trying to be too many things to too many people.

    Susan, you bring up another key Mr. Rogers’ trait: “consistent.” (And I just found out, in my research for this post, about his connection with Michael Keaton!)

    Nicola, now that’s something I never knew about you—you met Mr. Rogers! Very cool. Especially now that I’ve completely renewed my appreciation for him. :)

    Dave, yes, that quote does bring it home. It also describes, perfectly, what I’ve loved most about my favorite churches—that obvious recognition that we’re all needy, and that we also all have something to give.

    Walter, “humility” is another great way to describe Mr. Rogers. When you consider how famous he became and how much power he had, as Nicola mentioned, living a life of humility is even more amazing to consider.

    dorie, “all the good” indeed. :)

    Trina, good point—there are many ways to approach the questions I’ve posed here. I guess the fact of the matter is that we all get rubbed the wrong way by people, and we’re all tempted to get sucked into drama, whether it’s drama between Christians who don’t see eye-to-eye or between you and the guy you married.

  • Kate

    Stumbled on your blog again…I think I used to read it from time to time when I still lived in Chambana. :) And, I loved this post! Just like you, I didn’t realize until recently how much more there was to Mr. Rogers. One of my favorite quotes from him is this: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” I remember this always, and have (and will) use it when I’m speaking with kids (and even to myself!) to help make things less scary for them. Anyway, thought I’d pass it along to here. :)

  • Meredith

    My most vivid memory of Mr. Rogers was how clearly he treated everyone around him (including the puppets he interacted with) with dignity and respect. For me, he seemed to truly embody the ideal of The Golden Rule. I love these lessons and questions you pose here – I think he’s a fabulous example to learn from and a good example of what to strive for.

  • Kristin T.

    Kate, welcome back! I love the “look for the helpers” perspective. Thanks for sharing it! Now I’m going to share it with my own kids. In fact, I’m going to have to introduce them to Mr. Rogers in general—I’m pretty sure they don’t know a thing about him.

    Meredith, you’re right, there’s a lot to learn from his example. As I think more about it, I also think his quiet humility is one of the most important characteristics to emulate. He wasn’t flashy or gimmicky, he just was consistently himself.

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