Monday, January 28, 2019

The Contemplative Mr. Rogers

The life and neighborhood of Mr. Rogers has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks.

It began when I finally sat down to watch the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which I can't say enough wonderful things about. It continued when I read this book and this book back to back on his philosophy and faith.

As he was for many my age, Mr. Rogers was a mainstay of my childhood television viewing experience. I think that I mostly looked forward to the stories that took place in the Land of Make Believe, as the Trolley faithfully showed up to transport us to a place with castles and giant clocks and talking owls and the scary Lady Elaine (I have yet to meet someone who grew up with this show who wasn't afraid of that stern little puppet with the rosy cheeks...she reminded me too much of teachers that I had).

In some subconscious sense, I can see how I was also taken in by Mr. Rogers's patience and gentleness, which he was very intentional about in his approach to children. The documentary spends a lot of time showing how his aim to take children's needs and fears seriously was what led to the slow pace of his show.

A more recent book now on my to-read list puts it like this:
Academics who’ve studied Rogers’s work often marvel at how young children calm down, pay attention, and learn so much from this television production — and at how they remain calm and centered for some time after watching the Neighborhood. Rogers himself put great care into the pacing of the program to help children slow down and steady themselves. 
One of Rogers’s film editors, Pasquale Buba (who went on from the Neighborhood to Hollywood to edit dozens of feature films), explains that Rogers deliberately lengthened scenes as the theme week progressed, so that the children would get used to an environment that extended their attention spans as they became more and more familiar with the story line. 
Many of the academics who studied early learning became advocates for the Neighborhood’s thoughtful, gentle approach.
As I've been revisiting this beloved childhood icon of mine the past few weeks, I've been struck by two things that influenced his decisions on the show.

The first was his anger. Not many people would think of Fred Rogers as an angry person, and few would consider whether he ever felt it as an emotion. And yet, it was in part his anger at the state of children's TV programming that motivated him to develop an alternative. The way in various places he describes his reaction to seeing slapstick humor or depicted violence as the apparent standard for shows geared toward kids implies an anger at what most people in television think is relevant and appropriate to children's needs.

And yet, Mr. Rogers was able to channel that anger into his creativity. He tells of using banging on a piano as his go-to release for anger since childhood. And it motivated him throughout his years on the show to help kids see that they can choose not to watch scary or violent things, as well as to acknowledge that sometimes we get mad, and there are certain things we can do to express it that are okay and others that are not.

The second thing I've been struck by is his contemplative side. Rogers was an appreciator of Henri Nouwen's writing and the two might have even been friends. His morning routine began with waking up before dawn to read his Bible and to pray. His custom before entering his studio every day was to pray, "Let some word said today be from you."

The slower pace to which contemplative practice calls us often lets us see things that we wouldn't when moving at our society's typical faster style. So often on his show, Mr. Rogers would let moments pass in silence while he was feeding his fish or painting or filling a small yard pool with water, just as a way for viewers to be still and watch and listen to what's happening rather than rush to describe it.

Overall, it was this slower gentler pace that was Mr. Rogers's gift to people. The specific lessons were needed, but to consider them calmly and in one's own time was something that children and parents alike who watched needed.

I'm not sure whether a show like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood would succeed today. That notion makes me a little sad. It seems as if our culture has only become more frantic and fidgety, and it might be more difficult to get people's attention long enough to slow down and give greater attention to all that we might be missing.

It could also be that someone hasn't tried since. After all, there have to be reasons besides the exercise component why slower activities like yoga and tai chi are so popular. So maybe there's still reason for hope.

(Image source)