Mister Rogers and the Cultivation of Goodness - Verily
"Make goodness attractive."

I watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which chronicles the life of children’s television host Fred Rogers, after hearing only positive reviews from friends. Some friends have described the movie as a tear-jerker; for me, seeing the film made me wish I had one of Mister Rogers’ deep-pocketed cardigans for the notebook I kept digging out of my purse to write down all the inspiration I was drawing from the film.

The documentary makes it clear that Fred Rogers’ iconic television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, both refused to turn away from the tragedies society faced (the show tackled tough subjects like the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War) and helped children (and adults) see the goodness in the world around them and the goodness in themselves.

Goodness might seem like a hard word to pin down, especially in a culture increasingly marked by polarity and cynicism. It is often correlated with being a “goody-goody” or “pushover” in modern society, but in this documentary Mister Rogers explodes the definition into a profound respect for the dignity and value of all people. Rather than being summed up in a mediocre phrase like “I'm a good person” or being a mark of weakness, goodness, according to Mister Rogers, is a lifestyle, a way of being in the world. His example has led me to think about some of the ways in which we can bring a little bit of Mister Rogers into our day-to-day lives.

01. Consume good things. 

Mister Rogers cared greatly about the content of children’s TV shows and believed that “what we see and hear on the screen is a part of who we become.” This holds true for many aspects of life—music, books, podcasts, and social media, to name a few. Is what we are seeing, hearing, and doing making us better people? If it isn’t, what can we do differently? Are our daily habits helping us become more vibrant, joyful people? If not, what needs to be changed?

One challenge I’ve given myself in the past is what I like to call the “joy project.” So often I get tied up in activities that are comfortable, but time-consuming. (Scrolling through social media immediately comes to mind.) With the joy project, I replace time I could be spending on things like social media with intentional get-togethers with friends. The goal of each interaction is to do something with each friend that brings them joy. One friend invited me to a concert, another asked me to come swing dancing, and another played me a song he loved on his guitar. By experiencing what brings joy to my friends, I find I feel happier and more fulfilled. I also get to experience the joy of learning something new about my friends. This change to my normal activities has been a wake-up call to examine how I’m spending my time and to be more intentional about it.

02. Allow for the duets in life. 

One of the most moving scenes in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a segment from one of the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which one of Mister Rogers’ puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe tells one of the human characters (Lady Aberlin) that he doesn’t like himself. He sings a song about this feeling, and Lady Aberlin responds with her own song about liking the puppet just the way he is. Then they both sing at the same time. In that moment the doubt and reassurance mix together, and viewers of the documentary hear one of Mister Rogers’ friends saying, “it’s not easy to quiet a doubt” and that there’s a beauty in the ability to “make it a duet.”

This reminds me that for many things in life, I’m called to embrace the “and.” I can be both sad about the loss of a job opportunity and comforted by a friend; I can be excited to start a new project at work and worried about the other projects I still need to finish. It might seem obvious that we can feel a variety of emotions at any given time, but the image of a duet really struck me.

In the context of self-image, the return to doubt can happen over and over again. Through his show, Mister Rogers seems to be inviting us to rest in the assurance that our doubts will always be answered with love. Instead of merely telling us to rid ourselves of our doubts, the duet model proposes that a person’s doubt and the reassuring voice of a friend can be in conversation with each other.

03. “Make goodness attractive.” 

This was one of Mister Rogers’ goals in making Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Near the end of the documentary, he encourages viewers to “always look to the people who are helping” in any given situation, especially when it comes to the painful parts of life. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there’s a lot of suffering in the world today, and it is likely that many of us internalize this suffering, whether or not it is affecting us directly.

But, in the face of tragedy, Mister Rogers suggests that there is opportunity to discover the good, in the people who reach out, open their homes, make meals, donate their clothes, and help to mend the bodies, minds, and spirits of those who are suffering. Those who provide this help demonstrate what it looks like when goodness moves beyond civility or just being “nice.” Goodness recognizes another human being and says “You mean something to me.” Goodness restores hope.

In my own city, there was a Mister Rogers “Kindness Crawl” back in March, during which people gathered together to do good for the surrounding community. This shows me that Mister Rogers’ legacy is alive and well and still pushing us toward cultivating goodness in ourselves. Mister Rogers said that “the only thing that changes the world…[is] when someone realizes that love can abound.” If the people who came out of the theaters this summer with tear-stained cheeks are any indication, we are all longing to give and receive Mister Rogers’ brand of goodness. Let’s start today!