Mr. Rogers is often referred to as “the nicest person in the world.” In the recent films released about his life, the 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and the newly-released, highly-fictionalized flick, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” it became clear to me why it was impossible to grow up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania without knowing who this man was — and how much more there is to learn about and from Fred Rogers.
The new film follows a journalist for Esquire Magazine as he writes the article about Mr. Rogers that the movie would be based on: “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod. The journalist in the film, renamed Lloyd Vogel for fictional purposes, discovers the truly uncommon character of Mr. Rogers and asks his wife, Joanne, what it’s like to be married to a living saint.
A living saint. “I don’t like that term because it makes what he is unattainable,” she says. “And it’s not.” She goes on to detail how much work he puts in to “stay grounded” each day — praying, swimming, and reading scripture. He’s the nicest man in the world, and he works for it.
The fact that the term “living saint” would be offered up as a label for Mr. Rogers at all speaks to how unattainable his experience does seem to us. But why do we feel like being that nice is unattainable? Why isn’t living a present, grateful, giving life, like his, more common?
Here are six traits of Mr. Rogers’ present lifestyle, why they’re so uncommon, and why they don’t have to be:
- Presence as a Dedicated Practice
“How many times have you noticed that it’s the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?” — Fred Rogers
Though it’s not called mindfulness directly in the movie, or in any research regarding Mr. Rogers’ life, it is very clear that Mr. Rogers did live out specific practices similar to those used by people who practice presence and mindfulness today.
He woke up at 5:30 in the morning to create time for himself to pray (for each person by name), swim for at least 20 minutes, and read scripture. In a more generally-spiritual practice, an equivalent may be practicing metta, engaging in a somatic practice, and either reading or journaling to reflect. Every morning, this was Mr. Rogers’ steady routine so that he could show up as his best for everyone in his life, and all the new people he would meet.
These presence, or mindfulness, practices are hard work to establish and maintain in a routine. It also takes time to find the specific combination of practices that work for you. This discovery period can be very discouraging and daunting, and once you get started it can be easy to slough it off if you don’t feel like you have time or you’re feeling good enough not to need it one day.
It is essential to meet these challenges by understanding the reasons for your practice, how it is benefitting you in that moment and throughout your day, and keeping an open mind and flexible expectations in how and when you practice presence.
2. Presence in Relationships
“Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.” — Fred Rogers
The first time Mr. Rogers and Lloyd Vogel speak on the phone in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Mr. Rogers say to a speechless journalist, “The most important thing to me right now is talking to Lloyd Vogel.”
Mr. Rogers’ presence practice carried over into his daily life in so many ways, but mostly in his tendency to fully immerse himself in conversation with another person with deep, unmistakable presence to that moment. He also made it a point to respond to each and every fan letter he received in order to tell that child that they mattered to him.
Is that how you show up in relationship with others? Many of us find and flaunt superiority in exhaustion and excuses — letting others know that we don’t have time for them because we are important and having adult things to do…that are more important than that relationship.
We seem busy, we forget others, we rush through conversations, either because we are too focused on the things we have to do, or because we want others to perceive us as busy and therefore important.
What if we changed one conversation into a present one today? Ask questions, have no goal but to be with that person, and don’t talk about what you need to get back to, and see how different that interaction feels.
3. Presence in Thought and Speech
“Try your best to make goodness attractive. That’s one of the toughest assignments you’ll ever be given.” — Fred Rogers
Mr. Rogers spoke slowly. It’s something Tom Hanks specifically noticed and double-checked about with Mrs. Rogers as he researched the part.
He took time to listen. He took time to process. He took time to choose how he would react, like he taught children to do. His slow, less-attention-getting ways were in competition with other much faster-paced children’s television shows, especially in the ’90s, but he did it this way for a purpose.
A public opinion survey in 2011 showed that the “pace, pitch, and fluency of your speech” makes a difference in how engaging and persuasive you seem to others. Talk at the right speed, and you’ll show that you’re smart and engaging. What’s more, society tends to show preference to extroverted and energetic personalities, which causes a lot of introverts to attempt to seem like extroverts in order to stand out, or even just to fit in.
Mr. Rogers is the example of “making goodness attractive” that proves you can speak and present yourself in the way that is natural to you, and someone will listen. He’s grown to touch the entire world with his message, from a simple public broadcast station in southwestern Pennsylvania.
4. Presence in Gratitude
“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are….Ten seconds of silence.” — Fred Rogers
The quote above is from a speech Mr. Rogers gave when accepting Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and it was one he often asked others. In the movie, he asks Lloyd Vogel in a restaurant to “take a moment to sit in silence and be grateful for all the people who loved you into being,” bringing the entire audience (or maybe just me) to tears as the camera scanned the room over old friends and a cameo appearance by Joanne Rogers, arriving back at Mr. Rogers, smiling into the camera for a full minute.
We should pause and experience that beautiful moment of gratitude daily, so why don’t we? Instead of being thankful for what we have, we are always striving for better and thinking of what we have to do, possibly afraid that being grateful may somehow make us stop progressing forward.
Try focusing for one moment on your gratitude for just one thing each day, in the morning and at night. See what a difference it makes in how you respond to the rest of your day.
5. Presence to Self
“Even though no human being is perfect, we always have the chance to bring what’s unique about us to life in a redeeming way.” — Fred Rogers
Over and over again, Mr. Rogers reiterates that we should accept ourselves and others as we are, without expecting more from them. His popular song goes, “It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair. But it’s you I like.” And another — “I like you as you are. Exactly and precisely. I think you turned out nicely. And I like you as you are.”
Instead of waiting on what we can become, we can accept and love ourselves as we are right now. By accepting ourselves, we can unashamedly pour out our unique gifts on the world, and make the specific impact we were meant to make.
Why don’t more people live in acceptance of themselves, according to their own unique blue prints? Most people are naturally more comfortable with familiarity, with the status quo. It’s scary to approach relationships differently, speak differently, lead your life differently, or be called out for being different in any way. We want to change, grow, learn, to become like everyone else instead of more like ourselves.
It is scary to be yourself, but it’s worth it. And if you want to know a secret…most people who see you break out in bravery will wish they could be brave enough to do it, too.
6. Presence to Emotions
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.” — Fred Rogers
We all have feelings, and no matter what age we are they can still be big feelings, ones that we hold inside and refuse to express because “we’re adults.” All feelings do need to be welcomed and expressed in order to pass through them, or to be fully aware of what we’re feeling so that we can move forward with solid footing.
Yet, many of us were raised not to talk about our feelings. Either that, or we’re scared what will happen if we confront our feelings, or admit them to someone else. There are many reasons why we may not want to say how we feel.
Mr. Rogers says that there are many ways to express your feelings, without hurting somebody or yourself. And all of the feelings you have are OK. Talking about them and finding ways to fully experience those feelings is the only way to free yourself from their control over you. Establishing a presence practice and a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings is a great first step toward that.
Let’s try to live in presence, to be a bit more like Mr. Rogers, the nicest person in the world. It’s not unattainable, and you’re not trapped by anything more than distraction from your own self and feelings. Create a presence practice, and be present in your relationships, in your thought and speech, in gratitude, to your true self, and to your emotions.
“That which is essential is invisible to the naked eye” — a framed quote Fred Rogers kept, words that he lived by.