Last week I watched the new documentary about Mr. Rogers entitled Won’t You be my Neighbor?, so he is impressed on my mind as I absorb details of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in the community of Squirrel Hill, which was Fred Roger’s real neighborhood. My heart is a snag of confusion, upset, and sadness as I hear the names and stories of the people massacred and injured—physically and emotionally—in that hub of community, that gathering of elders.
As a child of the 70s, I grew up with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and as a teenager became a more jaded observer of the man. It wasn’t until adulthood that I could apprehend the mystical, revolutionary quality of this Mr. Rogers, who helped shape my child mind. Watching the new documentary, I aspired to emulate him more and more in my life, to be more unselfconsciously kind to people, to extend myself to those who need my reaching out—beyond boundaries of comfort and social expectation, to be more available to those who are lonely and hurt.
Because of this recent remembering of Mr. Rogers and his ties to the neighborhood whose agony I ponder from the opposite side of the country, I find myself looking at him in this time of violence: How does one respond to this? How would Fred Roger’s respond?
There are the tears. There are the prayers, that we will begin to see clearly what is happening to us, what is being exposed, that we will turn away from hatred and exclusion. There is the desire to listen to the voices of those closely affected, the Jewish community who have suffered in pronounced ways in recent months, before this horror even occurred, because of mounting threats and antisemitism.
Along with this, as I call to mind Mr. Roger’s radical kindness, reflecting on his model and inspiration, I find myself challenged to show kindness to those it is hard to appreciate. In early October I reveled in attending the Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine in New York City. It marked the feast day of St. Francis—another beacon of inspiring kindness. Long lines waited outside before the event, and my grown daughter Madison and I noticed a man on the steps of the massive cathedral who appeared to live on the streets. When we finally got inside, he was resting in one of the cool, lanky foyers of the church. Madison commented how happy she was to see him inside—happy he and his string of belongings were welcomed in, even though he was not in line and presumably had no ticket. I seized the moment to teach her more about Francis of Assisi, saying the man likely looked far more like Francis than did the rest of us. She said she saw in him Jesus.
The enormous cathedral was packed—not only with humans, but with hundreds of dogs and other pets. For the service, I was wedged beside a woman with whom I struck up some conversation. She was dressed expensively and clutched a designer bag out of which she took opera glasses, hand-sanitizer. From her comments, I quickly learned she was afraid of germs, and was vocally critical of people who had brought dogs and babies for such a packed, protracted service. She tried to hand-conduct my and others’ singing during the hymn when at one point we missed the notes. And during the sermon, she angrily—rather violently—turned and snapped at a young boy behind her who distractedly kicked her chair. She did this twice. All in all, she was uptight, judgmental, and off-putting, seeming a little unhinged. Thinking about Madison’s Jesus-comment, I felt summoned to find Jesus in her, to see her as my neighbor and show uncommon kindness, when the truth was, she rubbed me—abrasively—the wrong way.
Being kind isn’t as potent when we are only kind to those who agree with us or whom we find, in some way, sympathetic. Uncommon kindness like that exhibited by Fred Rogers costs us, and I think it is uncommon kindness we are called to by his example; I think it is something we need.
To such an idea, it is easy to respond: How can you imply in the wake of barbarous acts that we need to just be more kind?! This is a time to fight evil, to resist, to declare the truth! And in response, I say we need to do both. Both resist and speak the truth, and exhibit in the process uncommon kindness.
This is what Mr. Rogers did. Often he was the only person stepping up publicly to resist evil and speak truth to his audience of children. He bravely covered topics such as assassinations, mass violence, racism—but did so without dehumanizing anyone or mimicking violence himself. He was an exemplar of kindness even when facing head-on the hard subjects. He never flinched or chose avoidance in the face of social evils.
I don’t suggest kindness would have caused different outcomes in the violence of this past week. The men who recently sent mail bombs or opened fire against groups they viewed as “other” may have had many people showing them kindness. Who knows? But I believe our choice of kindness does alter the energy around us and in the world, tipping the balance in the opposite direction of hatred. Especially when we show kindness to those who are hard to like. We all have important work to do to counter and expose injustices, but along the way, we can either spread a spirit of kindness or a spirit of meanness and bigotry. On a quantum level, it matters. Our souls, our cells, feel the difference around us as the energy of kindness rises or falls in a place. And I believe the waning of kindness in collective spaces gives way to daunting energies and frightening potentials. This is what we are facing.
So often we are unattuned to the power we have to effect a given space or circumstance. I believe Fred Roger’s life showed what one person can do with the power of unbridled kindness and gentleness, coupled with courageous truth-telling, clear-eyed social inspection, prophetic voice. I will continue to meditate on his example as I grapple with all that weighs on my heart these hours, these days of tension and waning light.