On Feb. 19, 1968, a quiet and simple show called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood debuted on PBS to little fanfare. This predominantly one-person kids show employed puppets to communicate unconditional kindness during a time when the country was experiencing mounting pain. This little show would air a staggering 912 episodes over 33 years, becoming one of the longest-running shows in history. Now 16 years after Fred Rogers' death in 2003, Tom Hanks brilliantly portrays Rogers in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. His mesmerizing performance allows us to be touched by the unrelenting power of Mister Rogers' kindness one last time.
Mister Rogers' catchy theme song contains the memorable lines, "It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Would you be mine, could you be mine?" Fred Rogers was inculcating the idea that we are all connected to one another. Seemingly, his show was centered around the notion that we do not live or act in isolation from each other, but just the opposite. We choose whether to be a stepping stone or a pothole in the lives of others. We are a stepping stone when we encourage one another, give grace and show kindness not because it is earned, but because we should.
The far-reaching power of this idea is central to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke from a place of hope and acceptance anchored in the tenet we are all connected to one another. It was Dr. King who said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Perhaps Mister Rogers was attempting to live out part of Dr. King's legacy the best he knew how. He focused his message to children through simple words couched in simple phrases, using simple puppets, filmed on a simple television set. Sometimes simplicity is like sunlight shining through the gray skies of complexity. We know it when we see it.
One of the more moving aspects of Mister Rogers was that he accepted people as they were. I suppose he never felt it was his right to define another person. In a memorable and touching scene in the new film, Mister Rogers is sitting in a restaurant with Lloyd Vogel, a disgruntled journalist writing a story about Mister Rogers. Lloyd and Mister Rogers had spent considerable time together by this point in the film. Lloyd is worn down by the world and confused by Mister Rogers' generosity; in this moment, Lloyd asks Mister Rogers why he's willing to spend time with people like the journalist, people who are broken. Rogers stares back before uttering, "You are not broken." The brilliance of this man is that he didn't see people as broken, perhaps at times incomplete, but never broken.
We are fundamentally incomplete individuals. I know I am. Some of the people who have deeply impacted me have a different world view, but their kindness, grace, and time they have spent with me have changed the way I see the world and people. Relationships, thoughtfulness and graceful tones of communication change people. It is OK we are different. Our differences can be places of beauty where we can gracefully complete one another if we are willing to gracefully engage with each other. Mister Rogers would never think it is right to decide how others should behave and act.
Perhaps Mister Rogers' legacy speaks to our souls in that our mission in life is fundamental to help others live their best lives. Making a meaningful difference does not require we write a novel, step foot on the moon, climb Mount Everest or serve as a CEO for a large organization. What is required is that we care, listen and gracefully engage with one another. After all, it is a leader's burden to hope for one another. A person's victory is, in part, our victory, their defeat is, in part, our defeat. We don't always have to move mountains to make a difference for someone; sometimes we just need to move a little dirt for our neighbor. ♦
Kevin Parker is an entrepreneur and teaches leadership and business courses at Whitworth University. Previously, he served as a state representative for the 6th Legislative District.