Opinion | Lark Ascending: My weekend with Mr. Rogers
It was Friday morning after Thanksgiving, and several friends had stayed over at our house. As we drank our coffee, we returned to the topic that seems to be ever-present these days: the terrible state of affairs we find ourselves in here in this country.
On the coffee table was a copy of the latest Atlantic Monthly, with the grim cover story “How to stop a civil war.” As the conversation got heated, I found myself flipping through the Atlantic and landing on an essay titled: “What would Mr. Rogers do?”
As in, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the TV show for children.
I was slightly too old to watch Mr. Rogers when I was a kid. Or at least, at 7 or 8 years old, I thought I was. Mr. Rogers spoke slowly. He seemed nice — too nice — and kind of square.
And that opinion probably remained unchanged as I went off into my life for the next 45 years. Like every other kid growing up in our success-oriented community, I threw myself into what was important: competition. The competition for good grades, the competition to get into an Ivy League college, to land a good job.
The allies of competition were cynicism, distain, toughness. Qualities that made you look important and made other people think you were important, too. After all, being nice was for wimps — I knew that. I knew it as a teenager and when I was 20, 30, 40. And so, it seemed, did everyone else.
Now, in this moment of great discord, I devoured the article on Fred Rogers. Over the weekend, I watched a documentary on Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I listened to Roger’s 2002 commencement speech at Dartmouth College. At the end of the weekend, I went to see the new film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
What did I come away with? A sense of awe. Awe for what Tom Junod — the journalist whose friendship with Rogers the new movie is based on — calls “radical kindness.” Contrary to what I have suspected, feared and been led to believe my entire life, kindness is not for wimps.
Rogers had the gift of perceiving the vulnerable child in all of us and was able to reach out with love and compassion to encourage that child. But like a great artist, he had to work at his gift. He was disciplined. He prayed daily and kept notes on friends and what they talked to him about and what was important to them. He swam a mile every day. He practiced the habit of restraint, patiently listening to others.
Compare that to how easy it is to lose your temper (something I did every day while preparing for Thanksgiving). Or to take that negative emotion and move it into the realm of texting and posting on social media. How little effort it really takes to share or post something nasty. Contempt, hostility and one-upmanship are so much less challenging than kindness and self-restraint.
I think that deep down we all have an inkling about how much courage kindness takes. And we don’t want to go there because it’s hard, and it contradicts everything we have been taught about the importance of competing and winning. If we listen, if we extend kindness to someone personally even if we find their political opinions anathema, will we look foolish, weak, like losers?
And yet, when we witness kindness, most of us are exhilarated or brought to tears. Rogers offered this story to the 2002 graduating class at Dartmouth about a race he’d watched during the Seattle Special Olympics:
“For the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants. All of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. … At the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long after, one little boy stumbled and fell. He hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying, they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time.
“And when they did, every one in that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why. Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too.”
Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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