We all aspire to be like someone. As it regards certain individuals, we may fixate on that person — consciously or subconsciously — for all our lives. That father, mother, mentor, teacher or hero is our Northstar. (“If I could just respond more like her when my kid acts up…” we might mumble). And then there are people that grace us with their presence a little more on the edges. We may not know them but whenever we encounter them, their character demands attention. The best of them don’t seek the attention, but their lives act as a model. A model of integrity. Grit. Carefulness. Whatever it is, they have that thing that draws us in and enjoins us to be more than what we are.
Fred Rogers, well, Mr. Rogers, filled of this exemplary template for millions. Though we didn’t know him personally, we felt the call to improve ourselves, just by watching him. And with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, he navigated back onto the set in his role as The Christian Humanist for millions once again. Many for the first time made his acquaintances with him, and for many more, he returned for another act. It’s apropos that he would be portrayed by one of cinema’s most loved luminaries in Tom Hanks (the “nicest man in Hollywood”). Hanks settles right in as Fred Rogers, adopting his cadence and speech and the sometimes slightly awkward movements with which he moves.
Mr. Rogers wasn’t just in a different world, he created a different world. His was a world of acceptance and love. One of pressing into the hurt and pain rather than it pressing into him. The original article on which the movie is based unpacked this “otherworldliness” for Rogers’ PBS audience in 1989. And the movie opened his life to a whole new world thirty years later.
The operating theory of both the article and the movie is that it was never Fred’s concern to give a great interview, to prove himself, or to affirm his own self-esteem. Really, he wasn’t out to affirm anyone’s “self-esteem” for that matter. No, the core of his ideology was that every human being has value and that wherever there is hurt or pain, redemption and rescue is available in equal measure. It was something more than self-esteem. Rogers was teaching us acts of love towards one another. Although it sometimes seems just beyond our grasp, it is, nonetheless, ready and available for the choosing. Sometimes you just have to reach out and take it. Or be nudged gently towards it.
Mr. Rogers presents Lloyd, our main character in the film, with both the nudging — and the opportunity — to choose goodness . He invites Lloyd to places of forgiveness and gratitude. This kind of love, this will to touch others, seems to be something that drove Fred Rogers everyday. While the incident in the subway car (a group of strangers singing his show’s opening theme song) may seem staged or too scripted to be real, we are assured that it is not simply a Hollywood scriptwriter’s idea. Tom Junod (the writer of the article that inspired the film) tells us it pretty much went down in real life just as it does in the movie. A multi-ethnic group of school children, upon seeing Mr. Rogers, sing unprompted as an act of gratitude to their hero. They loved Mr. Rogers because they had been affected by his love for them. And his care for others — even for these complete strangers — was always present. Even when he might have preferred to simply take an anonymous subway ride home, “in peace”. He knew that embracing the spontaneous, and joining right along, is the key to true peace.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is filled with little moments like these but it is about more than the sum of these moments. It’s about the impact Mr. Rogers had on one person in particular. Lloyd Vogel’s(the stand in for Mr. Junod) life was transformed by his encounter with Rogers. And, if we let it, this movie stands the chance of doing the same for you and me. One of the most powerful moments that I have experienced in a movie theater (spoiler alert) was also one of the most poignantly meta-narrative. One day at lunch, Fred Rogers encourages Lloyd to take a full minute to, “Think about all the people who loved us into being,” the music stops and sitting there in the theater, we are suddenly put into Lloyd’s seat. Hanks turns to stare at you and me. The restaurant patrons turn to look at us as well and we are drawn into the same self-reflective exercise. Having recently come out of an extremely difficult period of life, I reflected at that moment on all those who had contributed to my story. And as I realized just how many there were, I was overwhelmed. Some I left in a good spot the last I spoke with them. Some not. And some I will never have the opportunity to speak with again in this life. But they all meant something to me. They all shaped me and transformed me into who I am today. So, sitting there in the dark, tears spilling out… I am suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude.
When we remember all the good things that have come before, our minds shift off of the negative and troubling. And then, if we allow it, our pains, worries struggles and hurts evaporate and we are, instead, enveloped in a sea of gratitude. We have been nudged there by a friend who lovingly says,“You must choose grace in order for it to do its work…” And with the simple power of a loving stare, love does its work.
Throughout the movie, Fred Rogers is always focused on the “other”, always turning the camera, the conversation, onto the person he is with instead of himself, infusing the other with purpose and meaning. Reaching out from behind time and death, Rogers does the same for us in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. He invites us to something more, something that is at the same time outside of ourselves and more like ourselves than we’ve ever been. He invites us to something beautiful. In so doing, we become — if only for a moment — more than distant observers or admirers of an elevated public figure. Instead, we become guests of a friend. Guests, in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
For additional reading: Check out this article in The Atlantic where Tom Junod revisits his encounter with Fred Rogers and the relevance of Mr. Rogers for today.