Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

misterrogers_700xOn Friday my husband and I went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers. (Make that Fred “Mister” Rogers.) On Saturday I went and saw it again, and I was glad because it was probably the most profound religious experience I’ve had in a long time.

I know what you’re thinking. “This lady really likes Mister Rogers.” Well, I do, yes. I’m a huge fan of Mister Rogers, as are most people of my generation. So as soon as I learned of this movie, I knew I would have to watch it, but I didn’t expect it to affect me the way it did. What I was expecting was something heartwarming that would possibly make me cry because as I get older, I do a lot more crying in general, much to my chagrin. Also, I once heard someone say that when we’re young, we’re more likely to cry over bad things, but as we get older we’re more often moved to tears by goodness because we understand how exceptional it is. And if there was ever anyone good in this world, Mister Rogers was good, so I fully expected to cry at the Mister Rogers movie. But the movie didn’t make me cry. It made me think.

Which is interesting because Mister Rogers was concerned with children’s emotional development. Sesame Street and other “educational” programs for children were designed to teach literacy; by contrast, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was designed to teach self-esteem, kindness, and healthy emotional expression. Someone in the documentary says that Fred Rogers’ philosophy boiled down to “love your neighbor and love yourself.” That philosophy is simple in the abstract, but its application can be challenging, as anyone with a difficult neighbor can attest. The “love your neighbor and love yourself” line hearkens back to the great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. The Biblical injunction takes love of self as a given, the natural state of things, and for a lot of people it is, of course. But for a lot of people it isn’t. That’s why Mister Rogers’ television ministry was so consequential.

There is some cliché out there that you can’t love others unless you love yourself, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. There are different kinds of love, and I think you can love someone else even if you don’t necessarily love yourself, but as Fred Rogers put it, “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.” A segment of the documentary addresses the backlash against the self-esteem movement; did telling everyone they were special just create a bunch of narcissists? Ordinarily I’m not into the hippy-dippy stuff; I don’t think love is all you need. I do think, though, that until you understand that you, as a human being, have intrinsic value—not value that you earn by doing x, y, or z, but value that you have simply by virtue of being a child of God—you can’t appreciate the intrinsic value of others. I also think that until you until you understand your intrinsic value, you can’t understand the nature of God.

Or maybe I’m projecting. Understanding the intrinsic value of human beings—children of God—is easy to accept intellectually, but there’s something beyond mere intellect that either enables or inhibits true understanding of this concept. Some of us constantly need to re-learn that God loves us as individuals, as our real, actual selves, that grace isn’t something that we need to earn—that by definition, we do cannot earn it or deserve it; it just is. It’s such a simple concept that it’s hard to articulate the profundity of it without sounding inane. Which is why I’m having such a hard time writing about the effect this documentary had on my mind.

It was like hearing a particularly inspiring sermon. It didn’t move me to tears, as I expected, out of gratitude for one of the good souls of this world. It moved me to become a better person. At one point it shows an excerpt from a public service announcement Mister Rogers did after 9/11, when he said, “We are all called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.” That phrase, “repairers of creations,” sticks with me. God created us and our world perfect; human evil spoiled that creation. But if we are called to repair creation, that must mean that it’s reparable, and what we do makes a difference. No matter who you are, you make a difference in the life of someone else. And that makes a difference in the world. It’s a simple concept, but it’s so big. It’s everything.


  1. Love. I grew up at the feet of Mister Rogers and felt real connection with him daily. I can’t wait to see this film!

  2. Thank you Rebecca. I love Mr. Rogers and had to see this movie as well. In the world of children’s TV land of hurried, loud and impersonal, he took time to quietly look at the camera and make you feel you were really having a visit together. “You are special” and “I like you just the way you are” echo God’s grace, along with the story of his mother advising him to “look for the helpers” when he would see scary things. I am grateful he cared enough to “minister” to my children, and their mother. He was surely one of the good souls of the world.

  3. This is an incredible documentary about a truly genuine man who lived what he preached (and his preaching was very subtle). The sequence in the film about Rogers’s encounter with Koko the gorilla is worth the price of admission. Koko saw right through him, and saw love. I’m sure the Tom Hanks film will draw bigger crowds, but I think I’ll pass. I’m satisfied with a documentary that shows the real Fred Rogers. And his neighborhood was immense.

  4. Thanks for your commentary, Rebecca . I think you make a particularly good point about how it’s easy to intellectually agree with the idea that we’re all children of God, but it’s something other to get to a point where we feel or really know it.

  5. Just watched this last night. Not at all what I expected it to be. Much more depth than I anticipated. My son asked me as we left what Mr. Rogers version of tolerant meant. In my son’s peer group tolerance is a veiled term for judgement. Kind of the we will be outwardly nice to you but inside – not a chance. In the end I left more depressed than I expected. I loved his show. I appreciate his work and effort. I don’t think we have moved the needle towards his direction at all. I bless the creativity of the team that put this together. I am glad they were ahead of the Tom Hank’s version.

  6. Rebecca J here – I didn’t even know there was a Tom Hanks thing in the works. I’m afraid to even Google that.

    cat – I appreciate what you’re saying. I had a really difficult time writing this post (it probably shows) because I couldn’t articulate the complexity of my reaction. It wouldn’t be wrong to say the movie is “uplifting” or “inspiring,” but those aren’t the words for how it affected me. I can relate to the feeling depressed because of the contrast between his vision for what television could do — he wanted to use it to make a community as big as the whole country — and what television actually is. When I said it was like hearing a really good sermon, I don’t mean a good sermon like one that gives you a warm feeling of comfort, but one that stays with you and weighs on your mind. I don’t mean to oversell it – I feel like my response is atypical in its intensity (I’m not usually an intense person, so maybe it’s just atypical for me). This was just my experience.

%d bloggers like this: