Today would have been Mr. Rogers’ birthday, as my friends Janiece and Shawn have ably pointed out. There has also been an avalanche of postings on the subject over on Facebook, which has taken over the function of the office bulletin board that had moved over to email in the ‘90s – it’s where jokes, cartoons and general announcements get made for all to see. So there are a lot of people who have noticed this particular birthday, is what I’m saying.
It might seem strange that a man who made his living hosting a children’s television show forty years ago would inspire such notice here in the digital century, but not if you really pay attention. Mr. Rogers is one of the few transcendent figures in American culture, a man whose appeal remains universal even in this most partisan and vitriolic age. Mr. Rogers was one of the good guys. It’s as simple as that.
I didn’t really appreciate him until I was an adult.
As a kid I found his show kind of, well, boring. He’d come in singing his little song. His shoes would come off and his sweater would go on. He’d drone on in that soothing voice he had about whatever was on his mind that day, and there’d be puppets somewhere in there. I wanted to be out doing other things, back then.
I wanted excitement. Excitement has edges. Mr. Rogers had no edges, not really.
Yet now, four decades later, of all the television shows I watched as a young child his is the one I remember most and think of most often. Now that I am older I am not all that interested in excitement. Excitement is good now and then, and it is a great counterpoint to the larger enterprises of life, but it isn’t life itself. There’s more to it than that.
As I have gotten older I have come to value kindness and comfort as the two most important day to day virtues. It is a harsh world and one designed seemingly on a different plan than most people, and things with edges serve only to cut and wound. The ability to comfort others – the willingness to comfort others – and the kindness actually to do so are sometimes the only things that get us through the day.
We want excitement, but what we need is kindness and comfort. And Mr. Rogers was there to give us that and to remind us that we can give that to others, that we are worthy of receiving it from others and others are worthy of receiving it from us, that there is little in this world more important than how we treat ourselves and others.
We forget that, sometimes.
There have been a lot of tributes to Mr. Rogers today, and I’ve enjoyed reading all of them. But my favorite, oddly enough, came from a Cracked.com article entitled, “5 Moments That Prove Mr. Rogers Was the Greatest American.” It’s worth reading, and it’s worth following the link therein to Tom Junod’s 1998 article in Esquire, entitled “Can You Say … Hero?” – a long read, but a good one.
One of the five moments simply noted his role in this world.
He didn't live in a world full of songs and puppets. He brought songs and puppets to a world that was scared and tired and vulnerable. A lot of people of a lot of faiths are waiting for the Messiah, but even if one arrives, how are you going to tell the difference between him and Fred Rogers? ... His job wasn't only to help children grow up, but to remind adults, always, that they had been children once, and that someone, somewhere, had loved them.
How, indeed, will you tell?
Happy birthday, Mr. Rogers. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.