I recently watched the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about Fred Rogers, the influential host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
The movie was a great overview of the man’s life, mostly centered around his television career, but occasionally dipping into his personal life, too. Seeing Rogers single-handedly rescue PBS before a panel of senators intent on stripping away the budget of the fledgling network was incredible. Watching him be present and listening to people of all stripes and abilities was heartwarming. As so many have said online, his message of love is exactly what we need right now.
But that was also the part of the film that got to me the most. You could see, as he got older, that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. That he was still trying, struggling against the darkness, trying to be a guiding light, but finding it harder and harder to shine. Perhaps his frustration was best revealed when he recorded PSAs for children after September 11, 2001’s terrorist attacks. He literally said that he didn’t know how much good the PSAs would do. That is a man who has lost hope.
I felt for Rogers at the end of his life. As he watched the world around him decay into more violence, anger, and hatred, it must have been discouraging to realize that, on a large scale, he didn’t make a difference after all. His message of love and understanding and trying to be a better person clearly didn’t get through. I can’t even imagine how he’d feel about America’s current political landscape. And it makes it really hard to stay positive when you think about the fact that, if Mr. Rogers couldn’t make the world a better place, what chance do I have?
But Mr. Rogers did make a difference. He made small differences everywhere he went. That really is the ultimate lesson to be learned from his life. We can raise our own children to be kind, understanding, and compassionate, but we can’t change the world. We can’t make people be nice. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t save everyone, but you can save your own children. And hopefully they’ll take the lessons you learned from Mr. Rogers and pass them down to their children someday, instead of succumbing to the anger and cynicism of the world around them. That was the best that Fred Rogers could do. That’s the best that any of us can do.