Jamie and I recently watched the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? regarding the life and work of Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers, of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood fame. And I cannot recommend this documentary enough. I was never a Mr. Rogers kid, but as I've mentioned before, I wished I could have been. We didn't have access to PBS in Buna and only got to watch it when we would go on trips. As a young child, I know I would have been more drawn to Sesame Street, but I'm becoming more and more of a fan of Mr. Rogers. The more I learn about him, the more I appreciate him and see what I missed.
If you do watch Won't You Be My Neighbor? make sure to have a handkerchief ready. Now I know I'm a sentimentalist, but everyone I watched the film with admitted that they were at the point where if they made a noise, it was going to be a full on ugly cry. What fascinates me about this is that there is not the typical format of building to an emotional climax. There's not that one moment that makes you cry. The payoff of the emotional storyline built through the film. Rather, you cry at the little moments. You cry because of how pure his life and mission was. At how much of a truly extraordinary human being he was. As the New York Times editorial review put it, "Often people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness." Such is the case with this film and his life.
One thing I greatly appreciated in the film was how it handled Mr. Rogers' faith. An ordained minister, Mr. Rogers viewed his television program as the outlet for his mission. He was fiercely protective of children. They were his mission in life and he saw television as a great medium to reach them.
In research after the film, I came across the quote above from Mr. Rogers, which stood out to me, particularly in light of our continued study around the Prodigal Son. How the divide even goes to how we handle feelings. The divide in truth and hypocrisy. Of emotional intelligence versus emotional hypocrisy.
Emotional intelligence is a term that has been gaining strength over the past twenty-plus years. It refers to the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, to discern between different feelings and to label them appropriately, to use that information to guide their behavior, and to be able to manage or adjust one's emotions to adapt to changes and achieve one's goals. It's emotional honesty and empathy. The idea of recognizing emotions as an important part of our lives and working with them, not pretending that they don't exist or suppressing them so far down as to never surface. And over this period of twenty-plus years, there have been many studies showing the benefits of a higher emotional intelligence including greater mental and physical health.
It's that idea of tearing down the mask we present to society and getting to the true person underneath. Of working to reach the point where the mask is no longer necessary. To where there is no pretense. I think that's why Mr. Rogers liked working with children. There is no pretense there. No guile. Children are honest to a fault, and emotionally expressive to a fault, though they may not know how to process it. It was this honesty that he celebrated.
"And here is the radicalism that infused the show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated."
Jesus would even indicate this. "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God." "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The older brother and the pharisee so often forget this. The are so concerned with appearances, with not lowering themselves, not debasing themselves, that their own refusal to bend gets in their own way and the way of others. You see this in the film where Mr. Roger's insistence that every child be told that they were deserving of love and attention simply because they existed was seen as the root of the problems with the modern generation. He was blamed for the "everyone gets a trophy" and entitlement mentality. A reminder that from the perspective of the older brother or pharisee, works are the ultimate measure. You have to do something that merits praise or affection. That merits kindness or attention.
And this is so hard to break through and so damaging, for it requires a complete reversal of the mentality of the elder brother. It requires an understanding that what they did would never be good enough. That such works were never the standard.
That's why Mr. Rogers would say that Jesus had more hope for the tax collector or prostitute. It was easier to show them their need. When someone starts reaching bottom, they tend to look up, to look for assistance. When someone believes they are already at the top, they are already good enough, they tend to only look down or inward.
I think we see an interesting variation on this idea in the story of the Good Samaritan. For me, it always helps to remember that this parable came in direct response to someone asking Jesus what they greatest commandment was. And Jesus would answer to love God and to love your neighbor. While that generally sounded appropriate to everyone listening, the pharisees in the audience wanted one point of clarification - "who is my neighbor?"
The pharisees wanted a neat box tied around who their responsibility to love covered. Fellow Israelites would be certain. Showing hospitality to foreigners and travelers was to be expected. But surely Jesus could not expect them to love a Samaritan, or worse, a Roman.
Jesus responds with a familiar story that I've written about before. He tells of a Levite and a priest that pass by the injured man and worry more about themselves. What will happen to me if I touch this man? Will I be defiled? What has he done to deserve such a fate? It's important to note that both the Levite and the priest could not imagine themselves in the man's position. They could not empathize enough to see his need for assistance, so they crossed on the other side of the road to avoid him.
The Samaritan on the other hand worried about what would happen to the man if he did nothing. Perhaps, the Samaritan could imagine himself in a similar situation. He knew the treachery of the road and saw how it could have easily been him in that fate.
From the story, we see that the only response to Jesus' question at the end, asking who was the neighbor to the man who feel to robbers, is "he who showed mercy on him." We see that all we come in contact with are people who are our neighbors. And we have the opportunity to be neighborly in response by being the ones who show mercy and love.
Fred Rogers always asked "won't you be my neighbor?" It's an invitation to be one of the people he cared about and prayed for. From my research into his life, once you came into his circle, you were continually in his thoughts and prayers. You were in his life. You were his neighbor and he was going to be the one who showed mercy and love. It was a deliberate and thoughtful choice on his part. And it should be for each of us.
So for my part, I ask you - won't you be my neighbor?