Children's TV host Fred Rogers had an unusual capacity for love that few of us can attain. But his example can inspire the rest of us to love more deeply.
How many of you have seen the new Tom Hanks movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the one where he plays children’s TV host, Mr. Rogers?
OK, I see some hands. What did you think?
My wife and I went to see the movie recently, and I came away convinced it had something important to say … if I could only figure out what it was.
Minor spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, what follows might be a bit of a spoiler, although I don’t think it’s a big one.
One scene, in particular, kept coming back to me. Near the end of the movie, Mr. Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, is sitting with a family he knows. One of the family members is confined to a sickbed. We’re told this person is close to death.
At one point, the dying man says something about the fact that he probably won’t be around much longer. Everyone falls into an uncomfortable silence. Except for Rogers, who launches into a little monologue about death. It’s very surreal.
“To die,” Rogers says, “is a very human thing. Anything that’s human deserves to be mentioned. And anything that can be mentioned . . . can be managed.”
At least that’s what I think he said. I might have been a bit distracted because of the tears in my eyes.
What was Mr. Rogers' Secret?
The scene wasn’t sorrowful, really. It was about family togetherness more than about death. So what was this emotion that made me react so strongly?
I thought and thought about it all today. Finally, I realized the answer:
It was love.
Watching the movie, I had a sense of how it must have felt to be in Mr. Rogers’ company. And to feel loved by him. It was overwhelming.
This strange man napped every afternoon, never seemed to be in a hurry, and wore the same clothes on TV for 30-plus years. According to an article in Esquire magazine, from which the movie is adapted, he weighed himself every morning to make sure he still weighed 143 pounds, because if you count the number of letters in the words, 143 means “I love you.” This man wasn’t afraid to love. Even if that meant risking being laughed at. Or sounding weird, giving a lecture about death to a family that isn’t really interested in hearing what he has to say—until they feel the love in his voice.
... every morning, when he swims, he steps on a scale in his bathing suit and his bathing cap and his goggles, and the scale tells him that he weighs 143 pounds. This has happened so many times that Mister Rogers has come to see that number as a gift, as a destiny fulfilled, because, as he says, 'the number 143 means I love you. It takes one letter to say I and four letters to say love and three letters to say you. One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you.’ Isn’t that wonderful?'
Why we love Mr. Rogers
People everywhere reacted to Fred Rogers’ love. Autistic children spoke words they’d never spoken before.
In the movie, a little boy is visiting the show with his parents. The boy is breathing through an oxygen vent. He’s waving a lightsaber as fiercely as a child breathing through tubes in his nose can wave one.
“You must be very strong,” Rogers says to him admiringly. “I’ll bet you’re very strong on the inside, too.”
The boy puts away his saber and gives Rogers an enormous hug.
“Does this kind of thing happen often?” asks the journalist who writes the article in Esquire magazine.
“Every single day,” says the producer.
Mr. Rogers and the many kinds of love
The kind of love Rogers manifests in this movie isn’t the kind that you and I talk about on this show. We’re usually more concerned with romantic love, which the ancient Greeks, who liked to categorize all the different kinds of love, called eros. Passionate, possessive, all-consuming love for a single individual.
The Greeks would call the kind of love Rogers demonstrates agape—universal love. The hallmark of agape is a selfless concern for all creatures, including strangers you don’t even know.
Rogers loved everyone—even animals. He was a vegetarian. Because, as he says in the movie, “I could never eat any creature that had a mother.”
He doesn’t need to know anything else about you. The fact that you had a mother—that you exist because, as he says in the movie, “someone loved you into existence,” tells him all he needs to know.
The Greeks would call the kind of love Rogers demonstrates agape—universal love.
Most people, it seems, are starving for this kind of love. It’s not romantic, it’s not erotic, and it’s not familial. It’s universal. It says, “We’re all in this together.” Which, of course, is one of mankind’s fondest dreams … when we’re feeling secure enough in our own skins to imagine it.
As the movie portrays, people recognized Rogers on the streets of New York, and they couldn’t wait to come shake his hand. Those people were starving for his particular kind of love.
How did Mr. Rogers get to be Mr. Rogers?
As a child, Rogers was bullied by the neighborhood kids, who nicknamed him Fat Freddie. This caused him a lot of pain, and he wasn’t ashamed to talk about it.
For 30-plus years on TV, Rogers taught the children who watched his show, and any adults who happened to be in the room, that bad feelings—sadness, anger, shame—are acceptable, too. They’re just human feelings, which means they can be mentioned and managed.
Rogers was an expert at paying attention. He never seemed to be in a hurry. When he was with you, he was with you, in the moment
Most people who suffer as children don’t develop the ability to love in the way Rogers did. To do that requires natural talent, of course. But it also takes years of practice in learning to pay attention.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows us that Rogers was an expert at paying attention. He never seemed to be in a hurry. When he was with you, he was with you, in the moment. And he worked hard to be as non-judgmental as a human could be. Paying attention, in the present moment, with as little judgment as possible is something that today we call mindfulness.
Here’s an interesting fact. The ancients had no idea where the mind was really located. The word they used for “mind” was “heart.” In many ancient languages, “mind” and “heart” mean the same thing.
Mr. Rogers' four secrets for how to love better
What else can we ordinary lovers learn from Rogers, about how to love in the 21st Century? Here’s my short list:
1. Be simple
Rogers wore the same clothes on-set for over 30 years, and children loved him for it. It seems the show’s producers never asked him to “change it up a little”—or, if they did, he always said no.
The intuition behind this, I think, was that children, who are as attracted to what’s new and glittering as the rest of us, also crave what’s simple, predictable, and routine: a bath, a regular bedtime, and a kiss goodnight—always in the same order. That’s part of what makes them feel loved and secure.
2. Be attentive
It takes a certain amount of effort to pay attention—in the moment, without judgment—to another person. That’s especially true when you’re tired, preoccupied, or not very inspired. Rogers made it look easy, but my guess is his ability to pay careful attention to people was the result of years of disciplined effort.
3. Be accepting
As we couples therapists say, acceptance is “vitamin A” for relationships. We all need lots of acceptance every day. We get judged all the time, starting in childhood. A loving relationship should be a haven from all that.
Rogers seemed to accept himself. And the reward for this was he seemed to accept everyone else as well.
Rogers seemed to accept himself. I don’t envision him looking in the mirror and saying, “Am I too weird?” And the reward for this was he seemed to accept everyone else as well.
4. Be joyful
Rogers talked a lot about death, disability, and sadness. He wasn’t afraid of these things. One thing that made it all tolerable was that he seemed to sincerely get a kick out of people. He enjoyed them. Enjoying someone is one of the best gifts you can give them.
Mr. Rogers' legacy to the 21st Century
Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, if you haven’t already. Even better, see it with someone you love.
If you’re like me, it will remind you of things you already kind of know, but that it’s good to be reminded of. Like:
- Everybody feels bad sometimes, and this is nothing to be ashamed of
- There’s a certain kind of universal love that we can all aspire to if we have the discipline for it
- We’re all here, as Rogers would have said, because “someone loved us into existence”
This kind of universal love is a strange and precious thing, somewhat out of tune with our times. It does not boast, it is not proud. It is neither rude, nor self-seeking, nor easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. This kind of love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Fred Rogers had many fine talents. But the greatest of these was love.