Sunday, July 29, 2018

Six Life Lessons from Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers (PBS #thanksmisterrogers)

Earlier this month, my brother Mike and his family flew from Bangkok and I drove from Arizona to meet in Los Angeles for our annual summer reunion. One day, with his kids visiting friends in Malibu and his wife out shopping, Mike suggested that we go to the movies. The movie he most wanted to see also topped my "Must See" list: the Fred Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" which follows the life and the lessons of this extraordinary minister/television host who delighted and inspired several generations of children in his four decades on the air.

We weren't among those children nor were our children. Mike was in college and I was just finishing graduate school when the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood show first aired. My brother's two children -- Maggie, 9, and Henry, 6 -- were born years after Mr. Rogers died and have been growing up in Southeast Asia, far removed from the possibility of reruns. But somehow, on the periphery of our consciousness, Mr. Rogers had made an impression on Mike and me. From afar, we admired his authenticity, his goodness. And somehow a movie celebrating goodness seemed just the thing on this hot summer day.

We were transfixed by the film and found ourselves occasionally tearful as his life and his message of radical kindness unfolded onscreen. We watched a clip from the late sixties, a time when swimming pools were all too often still segregated, when Mr. Rogers soaked his feet in a small wading pool with black actor Francois Clemmons who played a policeman on his show. They wiggled their toes in the water and then Mr. Rogers dried Clemmons' feet with a shared towel. We watched as, in a later clip, Clemmons, who was also a celebrated opera singer and playwright, sang a song to Mr. Rogers, describing the many forms of love that can bless our lives. And we watched, eyes brimming, as Mr. Rogers asked a severely disabled child for details about his medical condition, discussed happy and sad feelings with him and then they sang a song about liking and accepting each other. It was all so simple, yet profound, and typical of Mr. Rogers both onscreen and off -- living with deep respect and love for others.

Why our tears? Some might have been wistful tears, watching the gentleness we had never known as children from a man we had also never known. But it's more likely that these were tears of longing -- for times when people were more inclined to look past religious or political differences to embrace one another's humanity. We remember, of course, that differences, irrational hatreds and prejudice -- especially racism -- permeated our society both in our youth and in our present. But there was a time when people, overall, didn't seem quite so sharply divided. Mr. Rogers, a lifelong Republican, expressed sentiments that we liberal Democrats also hold dear. Watching him, we realized anew the importance of looking past or, better yet, discarding labels to embrace the essence of others.

We left the theater feeling that Mr. Rogers had so much to teach us. Fred Rogers may have passed away in 2003, but his lessons are timeless

1. Feelings are normal and natural and happy times and sad times are part of all our lives. So often we feel cheated and angry when good times stop, to be replaced by more challenging moments. We pursue happiness and see sadness and setbacks as failures of the spirit. We admonish our children and grandchildren not to cry. We fight our own tears and express embarrassment over getting emotional and showing our feelings. Maybe we should celebrate, instead, our ability to feel deeply and to experience these feelings in so many combinations -- feeling warmed by sweet memories in the midst of grief or wistfulness or a flash of melancholy during times of joy.

2. Listen with your heart when others speak. This is an especially important lesson in this electronically distracted age. Couples sit together in restaurants, both glued to their smart phones, busily texting, not making eye contact, not speaking. Children are mesmerized by their iPads, parents distracted by their phones and conversation comes only sporadically in between. When Mr. Rogers was speaking with a child -- with anyone -- his eyes and attention never wandered. For that time, the other person was his world. He listened intently. He noticed body language and cleverness and pain. How could we be satisfied with less? Focusing completely on another as he or she speaks is a great way to enhance communication and build closeness. And feeling another's caring through his or her attentiveness is a unique pleasure. No one was more important to Mr. Rogers than the person he was with. Turning off our phones and tablets and really seeing and speaking and connecting with each other can mean so much.

3. Don't demean another even or especially with humor. Mr. Rogers said that was the thing that bothered him most when he saw people treating each other badly in the name of humor -- with pie-throwing antics and worse on early television shows. So much that passes for humor is hostile and demeaning. How many times have you heard -- or expressed -- barbed humor followed by "Just kidding....!" There is a difference between gentle teasing and diminishing another to make a joke. There is a difference between laughing together over a funny story and poking fun at another in a way that makes him cringe. Humor can be healing. As a therapist, I found that many clients responded well to humor woven gently into our conversation -- often an observation hinting at the absurdities we face at times. But it never served to diminish the challenges at hand or the courage and resourcefulness of the person facing these challenges. Keeping a sense of humor about oneself and about life can go a long way toward easing pain. It's all in the intent: whether humor puts a person down or helps him rise above his current situation.

4. Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. Mr. Roger's memorable lessons were as simple as a wading pool or a song and or attentive listening. But in these moments of simple authenticity, he tackled the issues of racism or our marginalization of the disabled or our avoidance of troubling issues. The images are indelible. In our own lives, in the many shadings of what is real, the subtleties and absurdities of life in our times may tend to make us shy away from the simple. But there is an essential simplicity when you go deep. I remember my best ever writing teacher -- the wonderful Australian journalist Elizabeth Swayne -- telling our class that small, simple words -- like love -- meant great things and that if we didn't know what we were talking about, we should use big words -- because big words often fool little people. Going deep allows us to tune out distractions, conflicts, divisiveness and the urge to win others over to a particular cause or point of view. Going deep allows us, instead, to ask the essential questions: What is just? What is ethical? What is kind? What is loving?

5. Look beyond the surface to the "essential invisible" of one another. A quote from "The Little Prince" hung on Mr. Rogers' office wall for years: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." Looking past the obvious to the essential can be a revelation.

When my friend Maria Kulczycky and I were young and in college, more than 50 years ago, we should have been close friends. We had so much in common: we were fiercely ambitious, both majoring in magazine journalism; we both had graduated from Catholic girls' high schools; we both liked the same guy. Wait! That was a deal-breaker, besides the fact that when I looked at Maria, all I could see was someone whose personal style -- assertive, confident, passionate, earthy -- was so different from mine. And she was foreign-born -- in the Ukraine -- and had this worldly, sophisticated air, a European elegance about her that I found intimidating.

I didn't come to know the real Maria until, decades later, as a member of the reunion organizing committee, I sent her an email, urging her to attend our 50th college reunion. She responded with a warmth that surprised me. And through a delightful series of emails over the next year -- as well as a glorious day spent together at our 50th reunion -- I began to discover -- at long last -- the essential Maria: an immensely tender, kind, funny, generous and loving woman whose friendship I came to treasure. After our reunion day together last October, I turned with wonder to my dear, lifelong friend Tim -- the man Maria and I had both adored when we were young  -- and said,"Wow! Maria turned out to be such a wonderful person." He looked startled for a moment, then smiled and said quietly:"She always was." And I understood the truth in his words, a truth that had eluded me for so long.

When Maria died suddenly and unexpectedly last month, I cried for my new old friend for so many reasons: for the devastating loss to her family and others who loved her, for her own dreams for the future that will go forever unrealized, in gratitude for our belated friendship and in sadness for the years that we lost together because I had been unable, until it was almost too late, to see and appreciate her marvelous essential invisible. Seeing and knowing and loving another's essence is a singular joy.

6. Respect and love one another. This lesson has never been more important than in this time of divisiveness and identity politics. While we can't truly walk in the shoes of someone whose race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or life experiences differ from ours, we can listen with love and make a real effort to understand another's world view. We can respect our differences and learn from each other. People who are different from us have much to teach us -- and there is so much we all need to learn.

We may find in time, that our differences are less important than we once thought. This was a lesson reinforced for me by my friend John Breiner whose wife Mary is one of my dearest, lifelong friends. John and I were wary of each other when he first came into Mary's life 35 years ago. All we could see initially were our differences: he was a conservative Republican and I a liberal Democrat. The distance between us began to change when John fell ill, battling Parkinson's disease and dementia for the past decade. I started spending more time with Mary at home, with John, instead of meeting her alone at restaurants to catch up. John and I came to see and appreciate each other in new ways. Politics faded to the background. Then, just before Christmas 2016, John looked up from a gift catalogue and smiled at me. "I just found the perfect gift for you," he said, his eyes twinkling. And he handed me a page with a description of a Hillary Clinton nutcracker, with her pant-suited thighs as the working mechanism. I laughed. "Oh, John," I said. "I thought you had forgotten that I'm a wild-eyed liberal!" He smiled back. "I didn't forget," he said softly. "It just doesn't matter anymore." The joy of getting to know, love and respect each other, a lingering warm memory since John's death this past December, made anything else insignificant.

Looking past differences to what we share and value and cherish can add incredible richness to our relationships and to our lives.

Mr. Rogers showed us, in ways both simple and profound, how we can make a difference in the lives of others, in the world and in our own hearts. We need to take every opportunity to be present with and attentive to others, to be kind and, most of all, to reach out with love beyond labels and barriers and superficial impressions to embrace the true essence of others.