In preparation to write this opinion piece — after having brushed up on current events — I took to my Facebook and Twitter feeds to see just which of the day’s hot topics were most successfully pitting my friends and loved ones against each another.
There was no shortage of controversy. Competing philosophies concerning gun control, abortion, immigration and many other pertinent issues were laid before me, seasoned with tasteful vulgarity and accented with the occasional degrading comment.
My impassioned effort to gain an education in contention came to an abrupt end, however. It was foiled by a familiar face, whose image is synonymous with the loving invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
The tweet in question announced a documentary that will be released this summer. It was posted on March 20, which would have been the 90th birthday of one of the greatest neighbors the world has ever known. The documentary highlights the life and accomplishments of Fred Rogers, who from 1968 to 2001 assured generations of children, in nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, that he really did like them.
He invited children around the world into his home (OK, I know now that it was a TV studio) and not only taught but personified what it means to be a good neighbor.
With the internet at my disposal, I learned all sorts of interesting facts about Fred Rogers. He studied music and composed over 200 songs. As he began his career, he was simultaneously taking graduate courses in childhood development and attending seminary, from which he graduated and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He received his ordination with a charge to continue teaching children and families through mass media.
I was most impacted, though, by the discovery that, while he was kind, gentle and friendly to everyone he came in contact with, Mister Rogers was no stranger to controversy. Among the most famous episodes of his children’s TV show were themes such as divorce, racism and disability.
In severe contrast to the online brawls we participate in from a comfortable distance, Mister Rogers invited his “neighbors” into his home to discuss difficult issues. He truly sought to understand and did so with such simplicity and respect that his messages were also clearly understood by his entire audience.
Whether crouched with his arm around a boy in a wheelchair or sitting in a lawn chair, sharing a kiddie-pool foot-bath with a black police officer, Mister Rogers stood by his statement that, “as human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is.”
This whole experience has led me to recognize, first and foremost, my own deficiencies when it comes to treating difficult issues appropriately. It would seem that I share those deficiencies with many of our generation. While it is easy to like and share controversial memes, I find myself wholly abstaining from engaging in difficult conversations face-to-face with my peers, as though the only options available to us are total agreement or bitter hostility.
When did we lose sight of the incomprehensible value of every individual we come in contact with? When did the object of our interactions become to debase and demean one another? The internet has provided us with unprecedented capabilities and a global platform which we should absolutely use to discuss and debate important issues. Let’s do so in a manner we can be proud of.
Let’s learn to look beyond our personal devices, past differences and into our neighbors’ eyes and let them know, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”