Please won’t you be my neighbor.
I knew I’d be in tears while watching Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, but I didn’t quite realize just how much it would affect me. (Of course, seeing as how I was tearing up just watching the trailer for the Whitney Houston documentary that aired before the screening, I should have guessed I was in for an emotional evening.)
Like thousands of children, I grew up on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. We didn’t own a television growing up, so when the time would come for the show to air, I would tell my grandmother that I was running down the hall of our floor in our apartment building to the unit of a lovely woman who did own a television. She always knew I was coming, and she always welcomed me with open arms—and often, a snack. I would watch the show, rapt, and sing along to all the songs.
I didn’t know back then that we didn’t have any money, or anything about the sacrifices my parents and grandparents had to make in order to bring me to New York (where I lived at the time) and give me a life that they hoped for me. I did know that when Mr. Rogers told me that he loved me, I was reminded that I had so many people—my family especially, but the community of people around me, too—who loved me, too.
My parents are still quick to answer “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” whenever anyone asks them about my favourite things—not just television shows, but anything at all—growing up. They know the show, and the man, had a profound impact upon me. They know that my predilection for wearing cardigans, my love of playing with children, my desire to always leave the world a little better than I found it, all were influenced in some part by Fred Rogers.
When the documentary began, and Fred Rogers appeared on screen, sitting by a piano, talking about modulations and how children need help moving through those modulations, all of that came rushing back to me. I couldn’t help but cry. I couldn’t help but remember a man that shaped the lives of so many, and who lived a life of love. I couldn’t help but mouth the words “I love you” and send that sentiment to every single person I knew.
Even as adults, we sometimes need help navigating those modulations.
About halfway through Won’t You Be My Neighbor, we discover a typewritten letter written by Fred Rogers that exposes his doubts, his uncertainty of whether he was up to the job. This was profound: I struggle with my doubts every day, as so many of us do, and always ask myself if I really can deliver on making the world better. I ask myself if my work matters, and even if it does, if it couldn’t be better done by someone else.
Fred Rogers taught me that “you don’t have to be sensational for people to love you,” but it was poignant to know that even someone as sensational as him had to battle self-doubt throughout his life.
What was even more powerful was not the exposure of that doubt, but what came next in that letter: the determination to keep going, through those doubts, no matter how daunting it seemed. I didn’t know it as a child, but I could feel that determination, that passion, that dedication to cause when Mr. Rogers appeared on screen. It was hard work, but he knew he was the one that had to get it done; we are all so thankful that he did.
If Fred Rogers’ theology was encapsulated by the phrase “love thy neighbor, and love yourself,” then I must apologize to Mr. Rogers for often forgetting such an important part of that lesson he tried to teach.
I wake up every day asking myself how I can bring joy and compassion and kindness to the people around me—family, friends, coworkers, strangers—and how I can live an ethos of radical kindness and empathy. I don’t always succeed, but it’s my driving motivation to wake up in the morning. I may not always say “I love you” often enough, but I try to show it in my actions every day.
What I forget all too often, and have been negligent for much too long in my life, is to love myself. I shower myself in doubt and criticism, hold myself to standards I can not maintain, and beat myself up for my failure to meet my own expectations. I do not love myself the way I should; I do not share the love I have for others with myself.
Perhaps it will take Morgan Neville’s documentary to remind me that I have been ignoring half of Fred Rogers’ theology, that you can’t really love others without loving yourself, too.
For that reminder, for this documentary, and for the man that Fred Rogers was, I am thankful. And for now, on this evening, I am tearful. Mr. Rogers told me that it was okay to feel, so I shall let the tears flow.