I admit it: I struggled to like Mr. Rogers as I watched the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I mean, in theory, I like Mr. Rogers. I grew up watching his TV show in the 1980s and loved the music and the Land of Make Believe. But as a grown-up, I balked at how nice he was — it didn’t seem realistic.
Who could possibly be so placid all the time? Who could stay so calm while wrestling — and failing — to set up a camping tent on TV? I could envision a number of responses I might have — snapping at those around me, making a self-deprecating joke, asking for a do-over. But simply accepting that the tent was harder to set up than I had thought? That seemed crazy to me. And I’m not the only one.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on the real-life story of journalist Tom Junod and an article he wrote for Esquire magazine profiling Fred Rogers. In the film, Junod is represented by the character Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. After some professional setbacks, Vogel is given the job of interviewing Mr. Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, in a bid to rehabilitate Vogel’s reputation.
During his early conversations with Mr. Rogers, Lloyd is visibly disconcerted, even disturbed, by Mr. Rogers’ behavior. Lloyd’s initial reaction is, “I just don’t know if he’s for real.” Who takes time out of their busy filming schedule to talk to a child who doesn’t seem to want to answer? Who speaks to another adult about his childhood using a hand puppet? Mr. Rogers often gets called “kind” — but is this kind or creepy?
I sat wondering whether the Mr. Rogers everyone adores is just a part of our nostalgia for our youth, in the same way, we might fondly recall the original Fisher-Price Little People toys. They were nice, but they were also a choking hazard.
It was like Mr. Rogers could see right through Lloyd’s bravado to his pain, which was discomfiting. On the other hand, I thought, isn’t this what we all want — to be seen? To be understood? To have someone validate our pain, especially those wounds that we suffered as children, and to offer us an opportunity to work through that pain and become more whole?
I wound up thinking about how I struggle to parent my own children, and how I have come to rely on blogs like Dr. Laura Markham’s “Peaceful Parenting,” to get support for my own issues dealing with “big feelings.” Maybe my discomfort wasn’t with the movie or with Fred Rogers, but with coming face to face with myself.
One of the most interesting moments of the movie is in the middle of one of Lloyd’s interviews with Fred Rogers. Lloyd is getting frustrated with Mr. Rogers’ seeming evasion of all his questions — he always manages to shift the focus away from himself and back on Lloyd.
Mr. Rogers didn’t spend his life trying to convince others through reason and argumentation that he was right. His evangelization was of an entirely different sort.
So Lloyd tries to turn the tables, suggesting that it must have been difficult for Mr. Rogers’ sons to have had him as a father. Tom Hanks does a fantastic job looking like he might just get angry. But he doesn’t. He pauses, breathes, swallows and thanks Lloyd for his perspective, agreeing that it surely must have been difficult for his sons to have had him for a father.
This is one of the rare glimpses the audience gets of Mr. Rogers’ internal life. The other is at the end of the movie when Mr. Rogers sits at the piano to improvise some music in the TV studio, and in the midst of his playing, he bangs the lowest notes of the keyboard. This is, famously, one of the ways he suggests that we might deal with our anger. The movie never says what he might be angry about, but there is a hint that Mr. Rogers has negative feelings that he needs to vent too.
Aside from this interesting glimpse into his emotional self-discipline, Mr. Rogers is depicted in the movie as almost perfectly present to whomever he was speaking with — man, woman, child or puppet. It was like that person was the only one in the room. He even says as much on the phone with Lloyd, early on in the film: “The most important thing [to me] right now is talking to Lloyd Vogel.”
It made me think of the times I have desperately wanted to be heard — by my family, my colleagues, my friends. And I had visions of myself spending time with my children with a phone in my hand or in front of a computer. In contrast, Mr. Rogers was making sustained eye contact with Lloyd. It was intensely uncomfortable, but he sure was listening to the person in front of him.
I had gone into the movie hoping to be entertained, but what I got was a dose of spiritual direction. The funny thing about spirituality is that it is self-implicating. You can’t just objectively contemplate a person who is presenting you with a spiritual proposition. You wind up having to think through this proposition for yourself and needing to agree or disagree with it.
One of the best books I have read is Joseph Ratzinger’s The Yes of Jesus Christ. In it, Ratzinger makes the point that when we are confronted by goodness (or truth or beauty), it is insufficient to simply observe it and pass by. We are called to respond with a “yes” or “no” to the truth presented.
Mr. Rogers didn’t spend his life trying to convince others through reason and argumentation that he was right. His evangelization was of an entirely different sort. He lived his life striving to be human in the best sense of the word and in trying to treat others with the same compassion he strove to have for himself.
In turning our gaze to Mr. Rogers, we don’t get a handbook for how to live life, but we do get invited to look at our own lives, and we are offered hope that we can be better by being more compassionate with each other and remembering our own hurts. We can be more present to each other by giving people our whole attention and engaging them where they are. We can listen to others more than we preach to them. We can pray for others rather than turning our backs on them as irredeemable. We can forgive others, calling to mind our own failings.
It is too simple to say Mr. Rogers was “kind.” He was a profoundly spiritual person who tried to live out his humanity through body- and soul-care. When we get a good glimpse of his life, we must confront the question of whether this is the best way to live. We are compelled to answer “yes” or “no.” Lloyd surprised himself by answering in the affirmative.
During the holidays, pretty much every major news outlet will publish opinion pieces on how to navigate (read: confront) our friends and relatives about our political differences. But what if we spent this season with a greater focus on silence, reflection and compassion? Which would affect more real change in the world?
Elizabeth-Jane McGuire is an assistant professor in the Augustine and Culture Seminar Program at Villanova University, a faculty advisor, and a mother of four beautiful children. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the organ and directing the choir at her church.