Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In this distant world, we all need a good neighbor like Fred Rogers

I hate finding pictures from my childhood. I’ll be cruising through a photo album and it’s like being blindsided by a 300 pound tackle.  Speaking of 300 pounds…

I was a fat, lonely kid with a lousy home life and no friends. Seriously, none. A slew of allergies, asthma and a particularly weird skin ailment that made me break out whenever sweating (seriously – I was allergic to my own perspiration) kept me indoors far too much. No, I wasn’t quite the “boy in the plastic bubble”…but close enough.

I did ride my bike a lot, especially during the autumn and early spring months in North Alabama. But those allergies meant no team sports, so I missed out on most of the bonding experiences other boys enjoyed. Far too much of my time was spent indoors, alone in my own little world.

My mom used to drive all over town to try and find just one unsuspecting kid who would fall for whatever bribes she offered to spend an afternoon with me. If their parents were gullible enough to take the bait, for that afternoon their child would be immersed into my little fantasy world of old movies and music. They’d be trapped for hours with me talking about old movie stars they’d never heard of, lip-synching to songs from 30 years prior, and involving them in impromptu plays and home movies. Needless to say, once they survived the experience, they rarely ever returned and mom had to work the phone again.

Sure, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like the backstory for a serial killer.  The guy who neighbors later said, “He was a quiet kid, always stayed to himself. And we just thought all that digging in his back yard meant he had a green thumb…”  But no, I did not become a mass murderer. And I eventually survived childhood and become a (fairly) socially-acceptable adult.

How did I overcome my obstacles? The answer’s simple – Fred Rodgers.


My favorite childhood album

Mister Rogers Neighborhood was my salvation. I watched it every day, and Misterogers was my best friend. He told me I was special, even when no one seemed to want me around. He taught me how to be a friend and get along with people, even those from different backgrounds than mine. His positive smile taught me there was nothing to be afraid of in these differences, but that they were worthy of celebration. I learned from him that another person’s talents or opinions in no way diminished my own.

Yeah, I know it sounds a little like “Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations”: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it…people like me!” But for a lonely boy growing up with a very angry father figure, Fred Rogers taught me that manhood didn’t have to come with a threatening tone and disgusted look. And somewhere between the masculine distance of my father and the warm acceptance of Mr. Rogers, I found the kind of man I wanted to be.

I guess it’s because of those years learning from Fred Rogers that I grew to value kindness and respect. But the power of his big smile and open heart seem lost in this current generation. Perhaps he was the subject of one too many SNL sketches. His love seems too simplistic and wide-eyed for our cynical world to take seriously.

It seems we have lost our ability to respect each other’s differences. We see it as our political campaigns swirl down the disposals of insult, innuendo, and accusation. Candidates of opposing parties used to be able to muster grudging respect for the presumed patriotism of the other side. Now we see people within the same parties destroying reputations with a venom and abandon that’s breathtaking. I’m not even sure how you’d go about dialing it back now. Have we gone beyond the point of no return? Maybe.

Through working different jobs and volunteering, I’ve been around lots of people from different backgrounds. I love my Catholic friends even though we disagree on key areas of doctrine. I have respectful exchanges with Muslims, and a dear friend is a Buddhist. I never back down or compromise what I believe in order to make myself more palatable to them – they all know where I stand.  We simply treat each other with respect and kindness.

When I was the chaplain in a jail, I even had polite conversations with murderers and thieves. I’ve found it is indeed possible to have friendly conversations with people I have little or nothing in common with. That’s because I’ve learned from Fred Rogers to value the person more than just the opinions they hold.

My question is: if Fred Rogers could love most anybody, why can’t we?

In the current climate, it is getting tougher and tougher to “disagree agreeably”. If I don’t agree with you, then I am prejudiced toward you. This constant “drawing of lines in the sand” is merely us arrogantly demanding everyone’s approval and then pushing away from them hatefully when we don’t get it. And it is destroying our nation…and our souls.

I remember finding an old record album of Mister Rogers when I was 18. I had picked up a handful of LPs from home to bring with me to college, and it had accidentally snuck into the pile. I remember my roommate and I laughing our way through it, drawing hundreds of innuendos from his innocent little songs. I eventually threw it away, not wanting anyone to find it and think I still liked it.

Today, I’d give anything to have that album back.

In this angry world, we can use all the Mister Rogers we can get.

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