If you take everything we know about good television and do the exact opposite, the result is Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Low resolution, cheap sets, slow pacing. Same holds for the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, similarly slow moving yet profound. Fred Rogers, champion of children, is a weird guy, to be sure, but he’s impressive as all heck.
The essence of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is: “Love your neighbor and yourself.” This is a single word off the Biblical imperative, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And yet I find the two to be quite different. Love your neighbor ‘as’ yourself implies no doubt – of course you love yourself! Love your neighbor ‘and’ yourself implies that perhaps you do not love yourself. Which, many of us in mid-20th-century America did not.
Self-love in 1968, when Mr. Rogers debuted, was not a sure thing. The tumultuous Sixties represented a ground shift from the conformists Fifties, (when self-love was neither common nor valued, and was perhaps suspicious). Self-esteem grew rampant, at least in the media, throughout the ‘me’ decade of the Seventies; by the time Whitney Houston belted ‘The Greatest Love of All’ in 1985, healthy self-regard teetered on narcissism; and when Mr. Roger’s finally exited PBS in 2001, the man who exalted self-esteem was pilloried for puffing up mediocre, fragile egos.
Anyone in the public eye as long as Fred Rogers is sure to develop detractors, and there’s logic in identifying him as a compass point in our increasingly self-absorbed society. But he’s too easy a scapegoat. As a pre-Mr. Rogers boy who grew up with ten tablespoons of sarcasm for every teaspoon of encouragement, I appreciate how this gentle minister called out America for its mechanized approach to childhood. He often said, “America values children for what they will be.” Mr. Rogers always valued little people for who they are.
If we could all adopt his wisdom and apply it to our own children, our elders, our betters, and our peers, our world would be a much better place.