- MY NEIGHBOR
Television was an important fixture of my childhood
That’s because it was a sorely needed friend in a home that always felt like it was full of ghosts. Not just because I grew up in a creaky, old New England house with a stone wall basement and inconsistent drafts of wind, but because that same house was often empty. My father left when I was young. My older brother was both very cool and a bit of a Tasmanian Devil, gallivanting about town with packs of unruly boys. I always wanted to be a part of his grander world, but I was left at the boundaries, a victim of age difference.
To make matters worse, within the empty spaces of my house, there was dread. A grandfather in and out of hospitals, always battling cancer again and again. Just as there was a silent, Alzheimer’s-ridden grandmother, who would clean the house start to finish in a never-ending cycle because it’s all she knew how to do. Even years after her death we would find things tucked away where they should never be. Sadness and mortality hung everywhere. All the while, my mother, the one proverbial rock in my life, was so busy trying to deal with all the aforementioned issues that she simply didn’t have much time for the quiet kid drawing in the corner. But like most latchkey kids, you learn a sense of fierce independence. You learn how to cook, to help out, to do your part. You try and fit in with neighborhood kids, to play sports, to do anything that forges some kind of extended family. And in some ways it works, but it often feels like you’re putting on a mask to be a part of the world. And all the while, there’s the anhedonic dull hum of your interior: the inescapable truth that you’re still just a desperately shy kid who doesn’t really know how to connect with people.
Mr. Rogers was the only one who really talked to me.
The remarkable nature of this did not strike me until I was much older, but even back then I had some sense of it. Even with a steady diet of old movies and G.I. Joe, I always seemed to find time to stop in and visit the ole neighborhood. Sometimes all I needed was just a few moments with the man. Not just because he was an adult who actually fostered the notion of diving into my own creative worlds, something that would feel much like salvation to me, but because he was an adult who looked right at you, and could talk both kindly and more accurately about the things you were feeling deep down. I didn’t need to do anything for him. I didn’t need to be anyone. I could just listen, and more importantly, I felt seen, exactly as I was. And within that, there were so many lessons that were both deeply internalized and others that should have been listened to even more. But the remarkable power of this connection didn’t come welling back up until watching the new documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Now, I usually spend a lot of time in these columns talking about form and function. Even now I could sit here and do a deep treatise on the language of documentary, picking apart a litany of the film’s choices, all while diving into the larger notion of “documentary objective.” For so much of what is wonderful about documentary is the meditation on perspective, viewpoint and truth itself. So often documentary is at its best when you can disappear into the unknowable. But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? stands in stark contrast to such form, largely because the subject himself is so achingly sincere. And by all accounts, everyone he ever met has been willing to say the very same. Thus, the objective for a documentary like this is different, for it has the simple goal of merely trying to bear witness—to see and observe the good that was done by one man many of us came to know, and perhaps best, to understand the real effect that he had on us. I know some may accuse this of being hagiography, but that’s also not really the point. Because this is more an investigation into the power of his ethos itself.
In retrospect, there are two qualities that made Mr. Rogers remarkable. The first, and perhaps what he is most known for, is that he was one of the first public figures to genuinely care about the interior life of a child. He was a student of psychology and he wanted to directly address the fears and confused feelings children have about the modern world. This is a remarkable gift in its own right.
But the second quality, which appears clear to me so much more now, is how much he also stood in stark contrast to the pressures of toxic masculinity. This was achingly important, particularly for me. Along with the ghosts of an old house, I came up in a salty “grin and bear it” New England culture. One where your interior was supposed to stay in your interior. Even with the most progressive of parents, we never, ever talked about anything interior unless it could be coupled with a dark joke. No one wanted to know. Maybe no one cared. Maybe they just didn’t know how to care. But your worth was laced in your ability to transcend whatever you were feeling and have it just “not be an issue.” You could be nice. You could be kind. But your strength? That rested in your unflappability. But as Mr. Rogers and many will tell you, humans are meant to be flapped. And scared. And talk about all this ad nauseam. Still, I can’t help but feel the push-pull of these mixed messages to this very day. Which is why the parts of the documentary that still linger with me now…
…are all of Mr. Rogers’ doubts.
- THE POLITE DARKNESS
One of my favorite films of the year is Paddington 2.
For good reason. It’s delightful, hilarious, emotional, and I’m not kidding when I say that Hugh Grant deserves an Oscar for his role. But at the center of the story is a sweet bear named Paddington who always seems to make the world better just by being in it. He makes people’s days better just by hitching a ride to work. He makes his family feel loved just by listening to them. He even manages to help fix the prison system through the power of marmalade sandwiches (okay it takes a little more than that, but that’s the crux of it). Part of the charm is that Paddington does most of these things by hysterical accident, and, through sheer osmosis of his good-nature, it all rubs off on people. Still, at the center of Paddington’s lovely effect on those around him is a mantra from his old Aunt Lucy, “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” And the movie dramatically backs up that very lovely message in spades. But since watching, there’s something I keep coming back up against, time and time again…is that actually true?
Unsurprisingly, it ties right into the hot-button topic of civility and decorum. A number of Trump officials are shaking their heads about people confronting them in the streets or refusing them service in restaurants. Marco Rubio was mad someone used “the F word” in government. And yet they do not realize that all these people are mad at them because they were perfectly O.K. with tearing brown kids away from their families and putting them in cages. What can someone do against such monstrous hypocrisy? The kind of hypocrisy that runs so deep that it basically weaponizes civility itself? For it simply turns around the notion by saying, “It is impolite to be mad at us for locking kids in cages. Please let’s have a polite discussion where we probably won’t change our minds, but it will just make this all seem like valid discussion we should be having.” Which turns it all into another way of keeping the control and power. It’s no accident that the most powerful point of Inglourious Basterds tackles this situation directly, for what Hans Landa and the Nazis wanted was nothing more than to have their virulent beliefs seen as dignified and cultured. Such is the very danger of the fascist tendency. And if these officials can’t see the basic humanity in another person, I simply don’t know how to sit back and hem and haw about civility with actual lives at stake.
It is where politeness goes to die.
Because what we’re really talking about is the difference between civility and ethics, because civility is worthless without ethics. And as much as certain people like to view ethical debate as an endlessly refracting prism that can be endlessly argued about in classrooms for an endless eternity, there are many cases where the kind and loving option in a given situation is quite abundantly clear (like not separating children from families and putting them in cages).
But in times of great strife, it can be even more difficult to parse the “what our response should look like,” out. Ghandi and the civil rights movement largely succeeded off non-violent means, but no one was going to stop Germany and Japan with polite conversation (allow me to shoot from the hip and point out that this speaks to the basic difference in needs between a progressive movement “for” something and when one is “against” a dangerous far-right movement). But it also speaks to a bigger disconnect between behavior and effect. One where Mr. Roger’s personal politics come to play.
It wouldn’t be until years later that I would find out that he was actually an ordained minister, but I’m always amazed how little that seemed to interfere with his modus operandi. He seemed to be a genuine article, a person who let the action of his kindness and faith do the talking while never resorting to the dogma of faith itself. He even made a number of episodes that directly fostered love in the face of bold racism. But when the same actor who participated in those scenes, Francois Clemmons, was reported to have been seen in a gay bar, Rogers told him that he couldn’t go there anymore or they would have to fire him. I’m sure Rogers saw this as a protective act, but it also feeds into the contradiction that he was a life-long Republican, which means he surely voted for people who would not reflect those same values in politics at large. There is an inescapable hypocrisy to this that the documentary rushes over, just as most of America does. But it speaks to the same hypocritical separation of the intent of individual morality and the gross, large-scale effect of political morality. So with all this in mind, my question is this:
“Would Paddington actually be able to fix the prison system?”
I know that question is laughable. Paddington 2 is clearly a fable, a gentle story about the power of gentleness itself, but such questions are still at the very heart of storytelling. Because what does a beautiful story matter if, in the end, its core notion is a lie? A sweet nothing we tell ourselves to make us feel better about the state of the world, especially when the limits of polite civility are tested by the horrors of the world itself? That same question comes right near the culminating moment of Would You Be My Neighbor? when Mr. Rogers comes out of retirement with a series of promos to talk to kids about 9/11. In the behind-the-scenes footage, he seems so riddled with doubt, so unsure of whether or not he’s doing something productive. The terror lingers with him, just as it did in us. But he ultimately decides to echo the old advice he had come to rely on, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” It’s a powerful notion. One that reminds me of just how good and loving people can be in the face of the most incredible danger.
But it also reminds me of another moment, the haunting one that comes within Hannah Gadsby’s towering comedic achievement in Nanette (which I’ll write about more another time) where she describes a moment when she was beaten by a man for being gay…and no one helped. Because a lot of times…no one helps. Just as it reminds me of the cruel irony that all the first responders who rushed to help in 9/11 face debilitating health problems from toxic exposure, but much of the government has fought to deny this. They did not even help the helpers. There are endless refractions of this kind of cruelty within society. Endless stories of people being told they just have to be kind as they suffer in the midst of their horrors. There’s so much necessary fury that needs to be aimed at those who do not want to own up to any of this, who keep stepping on people’s necks as they have a cocktail and gad on about society. To which I have an overlying question…how do we reckon kindness with unkind society?
How do we reckon with the darkest part of who we are?
- THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART
Let me put this all another way, what would Mr. Rogers do with an internet troll?
Again, I know this question sounds silly, but it’s an important one. While Fred seemed to have a remarkable knack for talking face-to-face with kids (even the most troubled ones) and letting his kindness shine through, there are a certain set of problems that come with the age of social media. Not just because of the open harassment, the racism, the lack of consequences, and the up-is-down logic, but the sheer idea that someone is going to enter a conversation with you in the most dishonest terms possible. Because the other person knows that, in the end, your very engagement and taking the bait is an excuse to turn your dumb little brain into mush because they know how to endlessly contort and not care. For it’s not about the point, it’s about the power they want to feel over you. And anyone who speaks about ethics online knows that there are many who want to betray the very notion of ethics itself, because life ain’t nothing but a big old joke. So what would Mr. Rogers do? And what would he do not just after a few times, but after years of being beaten down by it? Or would he not go online and find more productive spaces? But what would he do if he, like so many of us, inhabited this internet space as a home and there was no way to opt out?
I realize it’s strange to come out of all this and essentially ask, “What about this has to do with me?” but that’s largely the point of the documentary. In examining a man who meant so much to us, the film’s ending referendum is essentially just a call for self-reflection. To examine what good we can do in our lives, and especially be thankful for those who have done good in our own. Like his own battles being expressed with Daniel, the little lion, it always comes back to our interiors. And in that moment of self-reflection, my dear friend violently grabbed my hand as we struggled to hold back our ugly, flailing tears…because it all suddenly occurred to me.
A little after I started doing the “The Hulk” I came up with one rule for social interaction with people: always be kind. Part of it was just playing up the joke that people always expected Hulk to be smashy and angry, and I would instead be goofy and polite. For many years I kept it up and people genuinely seemed to appreciate it. I was as gobsmacked as anyone, but it really worked, perhaps because it also reflected the person I wanted to be. Then right around gamergate, things really started crashing in the online space. I don’t think people quite understand this, but dissenters got organized and ugly and it had a horrific effect. But I kept through it. Then the last couple of years things hit a wall. The election. Disease. Personal, crippling mistakes. Realizing I’m not the person I’ve tried to be. Hating myself for it. All within a world that’s completely out of whack. I am, and have been, completely overwhelmed. And this has been true for so many people. But when your inside is full of anger, crushing guilt, depression, anxiety and worse, it’s hard to reflect all that on the outside. Now, more than ever, I have such incredible doubt about myself and the world at large.
Which brings us to the most obvious point.
In a world where humanity itself walks along the edge of a knife, what makes people like Mr. Rogers, Paddington Bear and Hannah Gadsby all the more remarkable is not the innate belief that kindness always wins, nor love in spite of hate, nor the commitment to self-integrity. It is the crushing expression of human frailty in the center of ourselves. And they all go about it differently. The bravery of Mr. Rogers comes not in his stoicism, but that the way he finds solace in a timid and bashful lion. Hannah’s righteous fury is so deserved, and something we must sit in, but her ultimate bravery is in dwelling on the fears of what actually changes people. And what sets Paddington apart is not his bravery, but the simplest feeling of shame that after all he’s been through, he failed because all he ever wanted in the world was for his aunt to have a birthday present, so that she would know how much her love was appreciated. It’s heartbreaking, but none more so that when Mr. Rogers wondered on his deathbed, “Am I a sheep?” he asked his wife, but the real question he was asking was whether he had done enough good to get into heaven. It’s the question we all ask in away:
“Am I enough?”
It’s daunting, particularly when we feel we are in the shadow of figures like him, who are seemingly capable of such impossible good. And if he can’t live up to it, then who are we to? But that notion is actually our very last act of commiseration. A reminder to tell Mr. Rogers the same thing he told us so very many times before, “You are special, just the way you are.” That we have value. That we are capable. And in that moment, hands clasped with my friend, I remembered that simplest of notions. And everything that I’ve felt these years, from anger, to pain, to guilt, to despair, I remembered these feelings are allowed. I remembered that facing adversity is not about the brave face and some arbitrary rule of being nice and civil. It is about the genuine, inescapable feeling of coming at life with a loving heart. And so the very next day, I couldn’t help but be kinder to people. No, I didn’t lax on my ethics, nor relent to some arbitrary middle ground. It wasn’t even about the words, really. It was about the place I was coming from inside. For when everything in the big scary world gets the most complicated, the most hateful, and the most full of despair, Mr. Rogers reminded me that there is only one thing I want to be…
One of the helpers.
I want to be a neighbor.
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