By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary film about Fred Rogers. Through most of the film, I was misty-eyed and by the end I was sobbing. The tears flowed with a sharp twinge of nostalgia as I remembered the songs, characters, and messages of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show that imprinted my childhood. The tears also streamed from an unexpressed sadness that I and others have been carrying for some time — a sadness that we are losing this kind of “neighborliness”, losing this sort of kindness from our society.
Fred Rogers was a unique and remarkable man in his caring and gentle ways. As a pastor, he brought his pastoral touch to a new paradigm of television. But he also brought the sensibilities of a father, husband, counselor, performer, and broadcaster to his work and his show. Most significantly, he did something counter to the norms and inputs of that era — and made a tremendous impact by following his countercultural approach.
But as remarkable and unique as he was, he is not the only man, or person, who expresses kindness in simple and profound ways. There are pastors, counselors, doctors, teachers, coaches, and others who also share kindness, gentleness, and care just as significant as what we might have watched on television. But the challenge in our present age is that we are not seeing them and their acts of kindness generally represented on television or in society. Without these visual and regular representations across the spectrum of our current “neighborhoods”, our children and our adults have fewer social cues on what it means to be civil and kind as a member of families, groups, and the community. And that has profound ramifications.
The Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary especially highlights Officer Clements, the first African American character depicted in children’s television programming. He had a recurring role and one that offered various opportunities for Mr. Rogers to address racial concerns in America with simple, kind, and relational ways to demonstrate how to interact. Most notably they had an episode when Rogers and Clements cool their feet together in a plastic pool on a hot day — a simple but significant protest against the segregated pools of the South. The simple act of kindness that Mr. Rogers demonstrated in that episode taught a generation of kids how to treat others. These kinds of examples of gentleness and civilly are not as apparent for kids today, even though racial tensions have run high in recent years.
Behind the scenes, the real-life Clements was a talented musician and a gay man. While Clements sexuality was not discussed on the show, it was a matter that he was open about with Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers, both as pastor and as a television personality, knew that subject would be problematic for television at that time, and especially for children’s television. But he cared about Clements and showed him much kindness even when Clements couldn’t be “open” on television. His kindness was so significant that during the documentary Clements reflected on how much Fred Rogers loved him and how much he loved Fred Rogers, and that no man had ever loved Clements in his life the way that Fred Rogers had. That love did not stem from whether or not Clements was gay, nor whether or not Fred Rogers accepted and embraced that lifestyle, but simply from the fact that he cared for him as a person. Kindness is not just about acceptance or agreement, or even acting “nicely” — but kindness prompts genuine acts of love, despite differences.
A week after I saw the documentary, there were major storms around the country and especially in Colorado. My husband is an airline pilot and he landed in Denver on a Sunday evening after a long 14+ hour day that started in the early morning across the country. He stepped off the plane and went directly to the gate where my Mom was scheduled to return to Minneapolis after a visit to Denver. He stayed with her at the airport to make sure she would make it out since many flights were being cancelled because of the weather situation. The airport was packed with people — disgruntled travelers. A few of them noticing he was in uniform took the “opportunity” to curse at him and blame him for the cancellations — never mind that he was off duty after a long a stressful day, had nothing to do with the flight cancellations, and doesn’t control the weather. These individuals were frustrated and angry and felt they had a right to vent on someone, and he became the target because of his uniform. It made me sad that after his long day of taking passengers like these all over the country in treacherous conditions and ensuring their safety that he still had to politely listen to these curses from these customers.
This airline episode reminded me of all those lessons from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers was always teaching kids about emotions and how to manage them. He always acknowledged the validity of feelings, but also underscored how they can be addressed and expressed in healthy and appropriate ways. Somehow, our society seems to be missing that lesson for how we should interact. Increasingly, people feel free and even entitled to express themselves and to do it rudely and with anger. Managing feelings has a lot to do with kindness. True kindness allows us to look past the negative and give to others in our interactions a degree of respect and caring no matter what. My husband could have responded rudely to the passengers who had been rude to him. But because he was able to manage his own emotions of irritation, he was able to empathize with the situation of the passengers and show them consideration. He tried to provide them some calm and clarity when they couldn’t — and that is kindness.
In another example, my family recently went on vacation and visited various beautiful locations in CO. On a bright morning in Aspen, we took our kids to go mini-golfing. The mini golf venue gave us our clubs and we had the course to ourselves as they were just opening. Soon after we started, they started piping in music on the course. Initially, it started as hip-hop music and then quickly became rap with less music. But the rap became progressively rude and crude — with considerable bad language and references — with one song’s entire chorus as the “F” word. Given that we have young children, and our own concerns for listening to that language and related references, Zack told the management what was happening and asked them to change the music. They did — to the Beatles. But the issue for us was not the style of music as we are fine with hip hop or rap. The issue was decency. In a public setting, in the morning, with children present, there is a level of consideration that should be expected with regard to lyrics in music. What the words were saying were not just vulgarities but a general comment to society — that there was no care for it. Increasingly in our society, we are giving performers license to devalue society and art. But art can and should be presented responsibly and artists are not outside of social values. They may interpret and express freely, but they also can’t forget the importance of kindness in what they do.
Music is not the only arena for concern. Social media, in particular, has been a place where unkindness has become a norm even when that norm would not be acceptable in other social circles. And “reality” TV predated social media. While Mr. Roger’s “land of make-believe” was teaching wholesome lessons about life, loss, emotions, & civility, “reality” TV was teaching us a how “real” people live, with rudeness, crudeness, and excess. Starting with shows like Jerry Springer that brought out the “dregs” of society to duke it out on national television, and extending to the Kardashians and other programs that basically allow people to have no boundaries, guidelines, or civility in their behaviors, we have been bullied into thinking that interacting with kindness is unnecessary and uncool and leading with our rudest emotions is essential and “real.”
But the kindness that I refer to is not about political correctness or censorship, but rather each individual’s personal recognition and responsibility in how they interact with each other. What we say and do to others matters and what they hear and experience because of us also matters. We are not separate from one another. Freedom does not beget isolationism. Freedom is interactive. We are free to express but with an understanding of its relationship with others. Even if we consider Fred Rogers’ approach outdated or outmoded in our present culture, what he was teaching still applies because, while our contexts change, people have not changed. Developmentally and emotionally, we are still much the same as our previous generations. As such, when we receive an overload of negative, rude, crude, uncivil discourse in any context, we are affected by that in the same way as those who came before us. These unkind behaviors and statements are an assault on us individually and societally.
We can change that narrative. Just as Fred Rogers introduced something to television that was countercultural and counterintuitive based on understandings at that time, we too can do something countercultural and counterintuitive based on our understanding of social media, television, and society today. We don’t need to buy into the story that what is unkind is “real” and what is “kind” is make-believe. Fred Rogers always knew that the truth was what he expressed in his “make believe” land, while the “real” world was caught up in everything that takes away from what is true and real. Similarly, we can pursue neighborliness today without accepting our culture’s untruths, and do it in ways that acknowledge our times, but recognizes our humanity.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.