Once upon a time, there was Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. It was always a beautiful day there and neighbors were always welcomed with open arms.
In this neighborhood, were great lessons, not just for children, but for adults. After all, adults were once children, too. In Mr. Rogers' world, he worked to look at each person as the child they once were (and still are, somewhere inside).
He practiced kindness and to practice it, he had to work at it. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a natural bent toward kindness, I am sure he did.
But he had to hone that instinct, pray about it and then consciously practice it, every day. He certainly faced resistance to it — the world is not easily divested of its anger and suspicion — but he never let that stop him from trying.
It was easier with children, who are still so innocent, who haven’t yet developed their individual prejudices and fear of differences.
When I heard about “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the new movie about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks, I knew I needed to see it. I didn’t just want to see it; I really needed to go. It was like having a deep thirst I needed to quench. And it didn’t hurt that the friendly face of Tom Hanks was there to portray the venerable personality.
The movie is done in an ingenuous way and I won’t give away the plot. It is loosely based on a 1998 article in Esquire magazine.
The Esquire story was written by Tom Junrod, who set out to do a profile on Rogers and ended up having a life-changing experience. To say he was skeptical of the placid gentle gaze of Fred Rogers is an understatement. He wanted to know the man behind “the character” Rogers betrayed on his children’s TV show. What he found was that there was no character, there was just a man determined to grace a hard world with kindness, both for the children he addressed on TV every day and for the adults he encountered along the way. After all, as Rogers said, every adult was once a child, too.
It’s a good lesson to remember.
The movie does not portray Junrod himself, but his representative character, named Lloyd Vogel in the movie, is facing similar demons and his exposure to Rogers is a catalyst for enlightenment and change.
Rogers' wife, both as her character in the movie and in real life, says her husband was no saint.
Thank goodness. It is better that he failed sometimes, better that he worked at doing the right thing, that he fought with his human self and dealt with his failings, just like the rest of us.
The concepts he promoted are simple in the extreme, so simple that they’re entirely overlooked by a callous world.
It was easy to take Rogers' simplicity for naivete, but those wise enough to look a little closer, saw that it was hard-earned wisdom instead. The Presbyterian pastor’s most potent power lay in focusing all his compassion and attention on the person in front of him, whether it be an angry, cynical adult like Junrod (or Vogel in the movie) or thousands of little faces staring at their TV screens. He gave them all he had.
Here are some of the things I learned from “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
The first is probably the hardest: work to accept people as they are, not as you wish them to be. Work at being kind even when you don’t feel like being kind, especially when you don’t. Work to make kindness your first instinct (man, that’s a whole lot easier said than done).
Look for the child inside each person you meet and remember, that you were once a child, too.
Pray for people by name.
Find an outlet for anger and disappointment that doesn’t inflict damage on others or on yourself.
It’s OK to be a work in progress — the important thing is to do the work to make the progress.
Boy, did I need that movie and it’s one I will likely turn to again and again, especially in this era of anger, fear and mistrust.
Mr. Rogers' message to children of all ages is one that is needed today more than ever.
I left the theater that day feeling just a little bit lighter despite the pound of buttered popcorn in my stomach.
I guess the best way to say it is that I felt like a prayer had been answered — one that I hadn’t even known I needed to pray.
Margie Richards is a reporter and office manager for The Madison County Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.