Recently I watched the 2019 Tom Hanks’ film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the biopic about Mister Rogers, inspired by the 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod (republished in 2017). I was particularly struck by how genuinely kind Mister Rogers was in real life; more importantly, I was struck by the fact that, for Fred Rogers, kindness was not an innate personality trait but rather a decision he made minute by minute, day by day, to embrace, to employ, to embody.
This got me thinking about my reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the most part I have weathered it well because I work from home and am used to never meeting clients or colleagues, existing at they so often do only at the other end of a video call or email exchange. I am used to solitude — even crave it on occasion — and am used to getting my social fix via the telephone, at least in part. I do miss my friends — few as they are since moving back to Edmonton in 2016 to care for my mother — and our social interactions, but I know this pandemic will end eventually, that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.
But where I have failed to weather this pandemic with grace — a word Mister Rogers used repeatedly — is in my frustration with the anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers, and those who deliberately spread misinformation via YouTube as they seek their fifteen minutes of fame and to make money off the fear that abounds. I am frustrated by those whose actions and disrespect for everyone else is prolonging the pandemic, who act as they do for no other reason than to satisfy their own sense of entitlement, and in doing so are exacerbating the anguish of those who have lost loved ones and the health professionals who had to watch them die. And so I am now asking myself, What would Mister Rogers do?
There was a poignant moment at the 1997 Emmy’s when, after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, Fred Rogers asked, “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.” In the movie this turned into two minutes of silence and only for Lloyd Vogel, the misanthropic journalist sent to interview Rogers, but the effect was the same: in stopping to think of all those who loved us into being, we find not only grace but gratitude, and perhaps forgiveness where there were flaws and misdeeds. We find kindness.
In the Hindu tradition, people greet each other with hands clasped as if in prayer and the word namastay, which roughly translated means “I see all the godly things in you.” One greets enemies this way, too, in an attempt, I think, to ward off any anger and frustration with your nemeses, to see, as Mister Rogers did, the child within who may still be hurting, or to see the ways in which even your enemies have shaped you for the better. Fred Rogers became Mister Rogers because he saw in the medium of television a darkness he wanted to vanquish by being its light. He chose kindness as a way of being because he saw the damage that hatred did in the world. And thus he understood that, paradoxically, it was hatred that made him want to love.
And so now, whenever I feel my anger rising over yet another “Freedom Rodeo,” over so-called Christians who forgot to ask “What would Jesus do?” before gathering in defiance of restrictions, or over those who refuse to get vaccinated because they’re so daft they really believe the vaccine contains a tracking microchip, I’m going to try a minute of silence for all those who loved me into being. And by that I do not just mean my parents, but all those who helped to shape — even if inadvertently so — the parts of my character I cherish, and all those who showed me love and affection — even if they later took it away.