The Lessons You Learn When You're Raised On Mister Rogers
I was recently in Los Angeles and had a chance to see the documentary, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor,’ for the second time with some of my West Coast friends. As we walked out of the theater, my buddy Andy who is a husband and father of three said:
“Wow, that’s someone who makes you feel like you’re a terrible human being.”
“I’m a terrible husband and father. I’m not even a good neighbor!”
He was being tongue-in-cheek of course but it’s a sentiment that’s been flying around a lot on social media. This idea that Mister Rogers was the very definition of an ideal human being, setting a standard that no one could ever reach. Many say he’s mythic; the super hero we all need right now (even more than Batman).
On the flip side, many of those same people have been skeptical as to whether Mister Rogers would work in today’s age of social media; quickly concluding that he wouldn’t resonate with today’s tech savvy, 24-hour connected audience.
Let’s flip the question.
Instead of asking would Mister Rogers work today, let’s ask: is he working today?
The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Mister Rogers is continuing to do his work even though his show went off the air over a decade ago, even though it no longer airs in reruns on PBS, and even though the man himself passed away in 2003 (fuck you, cancer).
From his first episode to the very last, he was himself. That was his work.
Think about that for a moment.
We all get caught up in playing the game. We put on a face, we selfie our best sides, we hide our blemishes, and put out a glamorized image of ourselves to compete with others. And we sometimes get into third-grade level fights on Twitter.
No, Mister Rogers wouldn’t work today. But he is working.
Let me explain.
Mister Rogers has been there for us through our darkest times, providing a comforting hand like a loving grandparent.
When the twin towers fell on 9/11, he came out of retirement to share this message:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"
It’s a message that continues to resonate on every social media platform during the many tragedies we’ve faced yesterday and today.
Right now, someone is posting or sharing that quote to someone in need.
Right now, a father or mother is introducing his or her child to Mister Rogers on Prime or Netflix for the first time.
Right now, people are creating YouTube videos and blogs about why Mister Rogers is more important than ever.
Right now, Sarah Silverman is sharing why Mister Rogers was her first therapist.
“If it’s manageable, it’s mentionable”
See what he did there?
Mister Rogers has been gone for over a decade and yet, he’s more relevant today than when his show aired.
The very fact that people are asking the question would Mister Rogers work today in an era of social media shows how he’s dominating it.
And he’s doing it the way he did everything. Just by being him.
Talk about a Jedi mind trick.
And while Mister Rogers would completely disagree with this language, I 100% agree with John Campea that “Mister Rogers was the Biggest Badass American culture has ever produced.”
When we think of manliness and masculinity, it’s not obvious to think of a guy who was soft spoken, played with puppets, and sang catchy tunes.
And yet, the proof is right there.
As revealed in the documentary, Mister Rogers never felt he had to wear a funny hat, act silly or appeal to the lowest common denominator to talk to a child.
He also believed that talking to a child meant never talking down to one.
Watch his show.
He covered everything from divorce to death to depression. Following the Robert Kennedy assassination, he devoted an entire episode to it with Daniel Tiger asking “what does assassination mean?” in the Land of Make Believe.
During the 1960s when it was illegal in some parts of the country for African-Americans to swim in pools with Caucasians, he invited Francois Clemens, a black cast member who portrayed the character of a police officer, sit in his yard and soak his feet in the same tub.
That’s pretty ballsy.
But wait, it doesn’t stop there.
During that same decade when the Nixon administration wanted to cut funding for public television, Mister Rogers went to testify before congress and Senator John Pastore, then serving on the Senate Subcommittee on Communications. Senator Pastore had heard several supporters of PBS make flowery speeches about the importance of public television and blah, blah, blah.
By the time Mister Rogers got his turn, Senator Pastore gave him a death stare that would make most grown men pee, telling him that he was tired of hearing rehearsed speeches.
Mister Rogers pushed aside his notes and went mano-a-mano with a cranky ass senator who was all but ready to cut the funding.
Mister Rogers didn’t make a flowery speech and he wasn’t smooth or elegant. In fact, you can tell that he’s quite nervous.
But Mister Rogers did what he always does. He was himself.
He spoke about the importance of his work and even recited the lyrics to one of his songs. It was a song about how children can express their anger and sadness in a healthy way.
You can see that the senator has no idea what to make of this man. He’s completely beside himself.
I’ll save you the suspense. The Senate approved $20M in funding to PBS.
Mister Rogers did what no one else then could do. He did something that no one is doing now.
And he did it without yelling, lecturing, screaming, or typing in all caps.
He showed that strength isn’t ego, bluster, or posture. This is the very example of masculinity that us guys need to pay more attention to.
So what about that other oddity? The fact that we feel like Mister Rogers is other-worldy; having reached some seemingly untouchable level of sainthood that we can never achieve?
I believe if he were here, he’d laugh and tell Andy and the rest of us, don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Just be you. That’s good enough.
In 2002, Mister Rogers was invited to give a commencement speech at his alma mater, Dartmouth College. His show had been off the air for a few years and he had gained a few vocal critics who started blaming him for all of society’s problems with his message that every child is special.
Yep, asshole windbags are not a new invention.
Surprisingly, several Dartmouth students interviewed in People Magazine complained about having Mister Rogers as a commencement speaker.
Watch the video and look at the faces of the students in the audience as Mister Rogers tells them the most important message they will probably hear in their lives:
“And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
I often wonder how those students who complained back then feel today.
Now here’s the ultimate brain twist.
The title of this article is completely wrong in the eyes of Mister Rogers and yet, it’s 100% right.
Mister Rogers never saw himself as a superhero or a saint. And yet, that is precisely why he is both and as Campea labels him, a badass.
Years ago when his show was still on the air, a little girl had a life threatening brain disease and needed surgery. She also happened to be one of Mister Rogers’ biggest fans. When Mister Rogers learned about her, he went to visit her and her mom in the hospital.
He had one condition.
He didn’t want any press or media there. He just wanted to sit beside her when she woke up to let know her know she was going to be OK.
And when his last episode aired on August 31, 2001, he resisted the network’s attempt to make a big deal out of it being the last one. Instead he ended it the way he does every other episode. The reason? He didn’t want to upset the new generation of children who would grow up watching his show.
Sorry, Mister Rogers but you’re a superhero, a saint, and a badass. And one more thing - YOU are special. I know it’s not what you wanted to hear but we can’t always get what we want. You taught me that.
John Lim is an entrepreneur specializing in public speaking, high impact presentations, online courses and digital products. He is the co-author of the ‘Corporate Cliches‘ adult coloring book and has been featured in Inc. (Minority Voices | Love of Pie Formula) and Cracked. John is the executive producer and host of the podcast series, Moving Forward, which has reached listeners in over 50 countries. Through Moving Forward, John has spoken with some of today’s most prominent entrepreneurs, artists, and influencers, including Winnie Sun, Jeffrey Hayzlett, Jen Grisanti, John Lee Dumas, Doug Drexler and more.