Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

*Note: This is a few years old

I was a teenager in the nineties. I listened to Manson, wore all black, and loved all things dark. As an adult, I’m a cynic in almost every way. I’m an atheist, slow to to trust others, quick with a snarky comment.

But before goth was in, before sarcasm became its own language, I was a child. And as a child, I spent a small part of most days with a very special man. A man who was above things like quick and cutting comebacks. A man who saw the best and brightest in all people and all things. A man who was the epitome of neighborliness. He was everybody’s favorite neighbor: Mr. Fred Rogers. He of the sweaters and tennis shoes. He of the Neighborhood of Make Believe. He of the special delivery movie reels that taught me – and every other kid in the country – things like how crayons were made, or what to expect in Kindergarten. Most importantly, perhaps, he who every day ended our interaction with the same message: ‘You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.’ A powerful message.

To this day, I can’t be cynical and sarcastic after watching an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (I watch them on You Tube with my daughter) or after watching a clip of him speaking. It isn’t simply the message that he delivered, as important as that was. Even more important was the fact that by all accounts, he lived his message. This was a highly popular television personality who reportedly answered every piece of fan mail he received. When fans of all ages stopped him on the street, he took the time to stop and talk to them, to share a little bit of himself, and learn about his newly found neighbor. On more than one occasion, while accepting an award, he used his time in front of the microphone not to talk about himself, but to remember those that loved him and helped him along his way, and what’s more, he asked those in the audience to do the same. I’ve never come across a celebrity horror story about Fred Rogers – everyone who ever met him seems to agree that he was a genuinely kind, selfless, loving man who cared deeply and passionately about the welfare of children.

And children loved him in return, so much so that even now, ten years after his death, children of all ages who grew up with Mr. Rogers’ message of love for his fellow human beings can be moved to tears by our memories of him. Being reminded of Fred Rogers’ words is enough to prompt many of us to resolve to be better people: more loving, more generous, less cynical, less bitter. I think that’s a good thing. Even better is that we can be secure in the knowledge that as flawed as we are, Mr. Rogers would have loved us anyway. Just the way we are.

March 20th is Mr. Rogers’ birthday. If he were alive today, he would be 85 years old. I’d like to think that his spirit, at least, is still alive today. This March 20th, make the effort to make it a beautiful day in your neighborhood. Tell a child that he is special, just by being himself. Tell a friend that you love her just the way she is. Go out of your way to be a good neighbor. You know how, Mr. Rogers taught you. Remember that you, too, make each day special day by being yourself. There’s nobody in the world like you. And I like you just the way you are. I hope you’ll be my neighbor.

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