So, John and I went up to Burlington, Vermont for a week of vacation (a gorgeous city!), and while we were there, we finally got a chance to see the documentary on Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I had been looking forward to the movie, because I remember Mr. Rogers very fondly from my childhood–I loved his show, and I was eager to learn more about him.
I thought the movie was great, and I especially appreciated his deep care for children, and the way he was able to meet them where they are and value them for who they are. He didn’t see children as “little adults,” but he also knew that they are capable of strong and complex emotions and important reflection. Therefore, they can and should be engaged in conversations about death, divorce, fear and other challenging concepts and experiences. He was spot on about that, I think, even as he also wanted them to be protected and nurtured.
Here is the thing that has stayed with me, however. So, throughout the whole movie, one of the main themes was Mr. Rogers’ Christian conviction (not only was he an ordained Presbyterian minister but he was actually ordained to his “evangelistic” work on television) that every child is special, unique and beloved just as s/he is, without having to do anything or earn that love. As a Lutheran, of course, I really resonate with that theme, and agree that it is such an important message to convey to children (of all ages!), a message we need to share and hear over and over again, throughout our lives.
Apparently, this was true for Fred Rogers himself as well.
Here was the surprise of the movie. At the end of his life, as he was dying of cancer, he asked his wife, “Do you think I am a sheep?” She knew immediately the parable to which his question referred: the story in Matthew 25 of the sheep and the goats that points to the Last Judgment.
Do you see the tragic irony and poignancy of this question? Here is a man who had really spent his life emphasizing the inherent goodness and worth of every child, asking after (maybe even questioning and doubting) his own inherent worth. At the end of his life, in the face of his own death, instead of resting in the loving, protective arms of God, he was concerned that he hadn’t done enough to be worthy of heaven. It broke my heart a little bit.
Now, this was just a quick moment in the movie, so it is hard to know if this was simply a passing question, or something more pressing for him–but I did think it was interesting that the director chose to include it.
I guess I was just left with the realization that the conviction that we need to prove ourselves, earn our way, and merit love and respect is deeply engrained in us–certainly in US society (which is why Mr. Rogers actually was criticized for helping create a culture of individuals who feel entitled), and maybe more broadly as well. And, I am concerned that in crisis moments of one’s life, this conviction is the one that bubbles up from some deep place in us and keeps us up at night.
I wish Fred Rogers would have had more confidence in his own convictions; would that we all have such confidence.