20 years after his death, Mister Rogers still offers a model for authenticity in a digital age
It is hard to talk about Mister Rogers without creating a caricature. The cynic regards his goodness as a bit saccharine, a childish dream ill-suited to the ugliness of life. The devotee puts him on a pedestal of untouchable greatness. Either way, we are inclined to put distance between our own lives and his, wary of the example that he set and what it might mean for our own call to virtue. He was a worthy steward of the early childhood years, perhaps, but it is easy to feel that he had little to offer us mere mortals who deal in reality—and especially the complexities of today’s technology-driven world.
Or so I still believed when, in a fit of nostalgia, I first streamed some old episodes of“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for my own children a few years ago. My firstborn, 2 at the time, took to him quickly. This was 2020, and he was desperately missing his grandparents. Yet even though I’d put on the show to buy a little time for work or cleaning or relative quiet, I found myself hovering behind my son whenever Mr. Rogers spoke directly to the camera. There was something arresting in his gaze, something that told me that he meant it when he said: “You make each day a special day. You know how: by just your being you.” Often I’d end up with tears in my eyes, wondering how he could transmit love over television.
Really, though: How?
Mister Rogers was a worthy steward of the early childhood years, perhaps, but it is easy to feel that he had little to offer us mere mortals who deal in reality.
In the last few years I have become even more sensitive to the hazards of one-sided relationships wherein we—the audience—feel emotionally attached to someone who cannot know us. Today many of us follow a host of internet-famous individuals on social media, from creatives to lifestyle gurus to political pundits. Plenty of it is benign (at least from the follower’s perspective), perhaps more like passive entertainment than an active relationship.
Yet sometimes investing in this type of pseudo-relationship can be deeply unsatisfying. I am talking especially about those celebrities of sorts, who share our core values and with whom real friendship seem possible if they were our neighbor rather than someone in our Instagram feed. Within the Catholic sphere, for example, one might follow well-known writers or priests or homeschooling moms ostensibly for whatever content they share, but also because their mere presence can feel like kinship in a turbulent world.
At some point, however, our natural desire for connection is frustrated by the size of their audiences, no matter how much they might profess to care for their followers. And it is the latter that I find the most galling. Isn’t there something inherently disingenuous, even self-serving, about saying that you care about your audience when in most significant ways you cannot? At least the pre-social media model of celebrity—that red carpet inaccessibility—offered fewer opportunities for such pretenses.
So Mister Rogers, slight in form, meek in manner, became an enigma to me. I began to study his “Neighborhood” as my boys watched it, tuning into his tone of voice, the deliberate pace of his speech and movements, the way he answered the door or the telephone. I watched the 2018 documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and the Tom Hanks film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I read a biography. For me, Fred—at this point I was calling him Fred—had grown to represent not only someone able to reach that vulnerable child still living within me, but a hope for authentic connection in the digital age. Here was proof that it is possible for a person to truly love and respect his audience, even without personally knowing the individual members of it, and to deliver that love and respect in such a way that I—years later—felt it.
In her recent book Celebrities for Jesus, which delves into the perils of fame for faith leaders, Katelyn Beaty defines celebrity as “social power without proximity.”
“We think we know our favorite ministry heads, worship leaders, authors, activists, and evangelists, because we follow them on social media or hear them preach from a stage or read their words on a page,” Ms. Beaty writes. “But we are engaging with a presented, mediated self. And the absence of true knowledge, and true accountability, leaves abundant opportunity for their social power to be misused and abused. To have immense social power and little proximity is a spiritually dangerous place for any of us to be.”
I would argue that this dynamic is one of the great dangers in garnering any kind of social media following as well. In accumulating social power from the comfort of one’s home, it becomes quite difficult to nurture humility over self-importance and interior depth over external appearances (to say nothing of the scandals that Ms. Beaty deconstructs in her book).
We communicate authentic love for our audiences only in the measure that we, like Mr. Rogers, delight in the specific human person.
What of Fred Rogers, then?
Friends and family members confirm that the Mister Rogers of the show was nothing but his usual self. “Some people thought maybe he was acting,” said his son John. “But those are his words. That’s his real voice.”
As to his power: He ceded it to others whenever he could. To Barbara, the woman preparing the pandas’ food at the National Zoo. To Wayne, the stock person pricing items at the grocery store. To Jeff, the boy in a wheelchair, to and with whom he sang, “It’s You I Like.” In these and so many other instances, he gave an ordinary person, unknown to his audience, a sacred kind of attention. And it was not just onscreen. His family and friends remember that being in public with him could take a while, since he so often lingered to speak to fans.
Ultimately, what sets Fred Rogers apart from so many other public figures, and the reason he reaches me in spite of his medium, is very simple. I believe wholeheartedly that, given the chance, he would have been glad to meet me. And you.
Where does this leave us?
Regardless of platform, however, our behavior communicates more than we realize.
Certainly there are lessons for those of us in public-facing professions and ministries. We communicate authentic love for our audiences only in the measure that we, like Mr. Rogers, delight in the specific human person—not humanity at large, not only those who agree with us, not only those who boost our image. We may not all have his good-natured temperament, but even absent a true regard for a range of personalities, we can start by respecting that every individual has a story worth knowing. And if we spend too much time on appearances and too little on our inner lives—which, like Mr. Rogers’s, must be grounded in and nourished by prayer—we will fall short of that respect.
Regardless of platform, however, our behavior communicates more than we realize, especially in public spaces like social media. What Mr. Rogers knew is that in treating others with respect, we uphold the dignity not only of those with whom we interact, but also those watching from afar. For every person to whom we respond with scorn or sarcasm on Twitter, there are others watching and wondering what treatment they would receive because of their values, status or political affiliation.
It is a big ask. Maybe my reflections have only served to put Fred Rogers even higher on his pedestal, even farther from reality. But radical goodness is not a foolish or idealistic response to a world as divided as ours; it is loving your neighbor as yourself, as Jesus calls us all to do.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Fred Rogers’s death. While he has no official feast day, perhaps we can still ask for his prayers as we go about our days, online and off. I have a feeling that the man who never let a young viewer’s letter go unanswered is a powerful intercessor in heaven.