There's a statue built to honor him on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. A man who hosted a kid's show on television. So many people, remembering him and what he did, sound so grateful for the influence he had on them. Mr. Rogers stories abound. Even among people who were adults when his show aired. Meeting him was a privilege, they all say. And he was every bit as nice in person. They all say that, too.
His show began airing nationally 50 years ago at a station in Pittsburgh, so we Yinzers are doing a lot of celebrating. There's even a documentary on his life that came out this summer. We went to see it a while back. My personal Siskel and Ebert said it came with "all the feels."
But into every life some rain must fall. He wondered after a while whether he'd made any kind of positive difference at all. He was hard on himself, And, though it seems more than a little bizarre, he had his detractors.
Some people liked to make fun of him for seeming just plain too good and too nice. Sometimes there would be a parody on TV or the radio. I saw some of them. A couple of them were kind of funny, the rest--not. Some adults couldn't deal with that kind of persona on a children's show, apparently. With cartoon characters it would have been ok (as long as they beat each other occasionally), but not with a human being.
At one point he became the poster man for all that was wrong with America. The cranky old person's movement was just gearing up back in the 90s, and their complaint was that what was wrong with America's youth was that they all thought they were special, and the guy who told them that was Mr. Rogers. It was his fault for making them think they didn't have to work a day in their lives, or be anything other than a drain on society because he already thought they were terrific and once somebody has a case of the self-esteems you can't get a thing out of them, productivity-wise.
It's a shame that those of us who know this to be a load of manure can't convince the rest of you that it is a load of manure.
In the first place, Fred Rogers, who went to Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, was basically just telling people what their Sunday school teachers were telling them--that their worth came before their accomplishments. That you don't have to win the race in order to matter (not that you shouldn't try, that is not the same thing). That you aren't a loser just because you lost a game. It is, in fact, possible for everybody to matter. To be special. That doesn't mean everybody gets the gold medal. But the 999 thousandths of humanity that never will doesn't have to feel like total failures all the time because of it. I think I heard somewhere that God loves you no matter what--from some of the same people who thought Roger's exercise in empathy was a weakness of the first order. And some people's parents try to model the same thing. What was so awful about a guy on television saying it too? Were they afraid this time we might take it seriously?
It's traditionally been in the best interest of the rich and powerful to make sure people only see their self worth in terms of what they are doing for their bosses. If somebody gets the idea that working hard is important but that their very image doesn't depend solely on that aspect of their lives--those bosses fear-- you may not get them to stay all weekend and all night, forget their marriage and their children and their health and just go until they burn out and burn up and destruct. Exploitation doesn't want well-adjusted people. It wants addicts. It's greatest worry is that the only way you can get people to do things is when they are empty inside and try to fill it with work. If their most basic needs are already satisfied--if somebody goes around telling them they can be loved whether or not they show up on Monday, maybe they won't do it, because why else would they? And if you are a crappy boss at a crappy outfit, maybe you have reason to worry. Maybe you have nothing else to offer but fear and dependence.
Meanwhile, despite the participation trophies and all the encouragement (horrors!) it turns out Xers and Millenials are doing some pretty amazing things on this plane. Some of them are working pretty doggone hard, going out and getting what they want and not assuming the world owes them everything. But you can sit on your own butt and complain about them if you want. They are passing you by.
Mr. Rogers wasn't about the corporate bottom line. His point was that you matter first and foremost before anything else. And that life is a marvelous thing to be savored rather than a long frenetic ride through a land of continual anxiety.
The other night I was talking to my brother. My niece is on two sports teams. In one of them the coach encourages everybody, is positive, and works hard to see that everybody is motivated. In the other, the coach yells at everybody all that time. Guess which team is not doing well this season?
Yup. And the one where the coach "coddles" everybody won the state championship last year and looks like they have a shot at it again this year.
I had some teachers in high school who would never have believed this. They thought life was hard, and they wanted to make sure we knew it, too. They treated us like dog turds. I'm familiar with the stories of the teachers that people thought were rough on them at the time and then later realized were doing them a tremendous favor by making them work really hard. These folks were not like that. They were just jerks. I've had the kind that were purposefully tough on me. I could usually tell at the time that through all those high standards was a person who basically liked me and wanted me to excel. These folks knew not only how to set the bar high but to do their own jobs to make sure we were equipped to jump high enough to get over it--and to give us the encouragement to try.
I'm afraid a lot of people have lost the distinction between making somebody work hard and being abusive. Seeing someone else's worth as no more than what they can do for you is a distinct sign of the latter. And fretting that anybody who thinks they might derive their worth as a human being independently of anybody else's estimate is some kind of godless commie is ridiculous--and one sided We are all responsible to each other, and for each other. That was in Fred Roger's bible, and he preached it, without his little flock ever knowing it.
It seems like America these days has a major case of "get off my lawn!" in more ways than one.
Fred Rogers didn't make anybody lazy, or make anybody feel entitled, or lose their zeal for hard work just because they had it mixed in with a joy of living. Mention of his name still brings smiles to all of the children of his neighborhood. Some very motivated children, I might add.