We Need More Fred
When I was little (ancient history), I used to relish in delight at the weekday dinner time hour. Soon everyone would converge on the kitchen table, and Daddy would be home. But, most importantly, I would get to pregame with a solid dose of Mr. Rogers. It was my brief time to become absorbed in the hypnotic pace of the show, the imagination, and the expression of empathy. Sometimes, my brother—who is 7 years older than me—would abrasively plop on the couch and force me to watch Hogan's Heroes or Ponderosa. On those evenings, I was devastated. But whenever I was able to get the TV all to myself, Mr. Rogers and I would have our very special time together and, for those 28-minutes, I would be filled with warmth and a sense of comfort and safety.
In the Mr. Rogers documentary on Netflix, they highlight how haters would attack Mr. Rogers' integrity, placing blame on him for children feeling entitled. They suggested that telling children they were 'special' would ruin our generation. I've spent years after his death on nervous watch, hoping no one would ever find anything to make Fred Rogers another Bill Cosby or worse. "Lloyd, please don't ruin my childhood,” the actress Susan Kelechi Watson said to her reporter husband in the 2019 movie It's A Wonderful Day In The Neighborhood with Tom Hanks, and I echoed the sentiment. I sighed a sigh of relief, between sobs, after seeing the movie. It appears my icon has not faltered from integrity.
I could come at this article from so many angles: the state of our politics, the level of hatred and racism in our world, the myriad of pain so many suffer, but is that really different from any other generation? We've had war, economic challenges, global health scares, pollution, racism, violence and oppression in every decade. Is it just me? Why does it feel worse this time around? Well, I think it's because we need more Fred. (I feel like that would make a great t-shirt, or rally chant). Mr. Rogers took the topics of the day and broke them down into simple, human terms; terms a child could process and grapple with. He validated my experiences, my worries, and my curiosities when the adults in my life couldn't or wouldn't. And he validated me. Where I often questioned my value within my family, or at school, or elsewhere in the world, Mr. Rogers reassured me that I was okay just as I was. "The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile."' I'm in awe of the man's capacity for generosity and love. Rogers is also known for saying, "Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." He didn't just speak these words, he lived them. If only I could possess a modicum of his tenets.
I don't often mourn deeply for the famous—for people I've never met. But Martin Luther King, Jr.(although he died before I was born), Anthony Bourdain, and Mr. Rogers' deaths all touched me deeply. It's a funny mix of people to have to dinner, but I think the one thing that holds them in the same category is that they all lived their truth. They all felt very 'real' to me, conveyed strong values and humanness, and did things their way despite the rub. For me, it begs the question: Have we lost all of our heroes?
Or maybe heroes just take on a different sheen these days. Maybe that's what Fred was trying to nurture in each of us back then—hero status. He is also known for stating in times of crisis to "Look for the helpers..." and I see them everywhere. When we look beneath the media frenzies, the 'fake' news, and the toxic political slants; what we see is everyday people doing heroic acts in ordinary ways: from people giving strangers their cars to shielding them with their own bodies during 9/11, to rallying around the 9-year old in New Zealand being bullied because he's a dwarf, to the guy that let me into traffic the other day with a wave and a smile.
Don't be the person holding their phone to make sure the incident goes viral. Be the person who stands up and doesn't allow the incident to continue. Ask yourself WWFD (what would Fred do)? And then do that. We need more everyday heroes. We need more Freds.