Won’t You Be My Neighbor: A Review

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I think we wind up saying to others what we need to hear the most. We know what’s right and true, but it doesn’t always sink into our own skin. Perhaps that’s why we keep telling other people about it over and over again—we need the repetition.

I’ve consoled friends over coffee, speaking Holy Spirit-inspired words of wisdom, while internally chuckling at the irony that whatever I’m saying is what I should be doing. I’ve written talks preaching the importance of reflection and discipline that I so desperately need, yet often fail to maintain. When I manage to write a lyric that hits home, it’s usually not because I’ve mastered the sentiment behind it, but because it’s what I need to be reminded of. In this place of knowing the truth but doubting that I’ve fully grasped it, I’ve seen a film that makes me feel less alone.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a beautiful documentary in which we get to know Fred Rogers and his journey in public television through treasured clips of him and the observations of those who lived and worked with him. We see glimpses of children’s responses to his program and his presence. We are shown a man who loved greatly and the ways that he was loved in return. This is a man who knew his mission, who poured out his ordained ministry in a unique setting, recognizing that children needed to be valued and brought into conversations about hard topics with gentle honesty.

We follow Fred as he greets children in person, and he famously and resolutely tells them, “I like you just the way you are.” We then get to see and hear a few of their reactions, and one small girl approaches him and says, “I want to tell you something… I like you.” Another exuberantly tells him exactly what he emphasized to them on so many, many episodes—“I love you just the way you are!”

It is special to hear an adult say this to a child; it undid me to listen to children say it back to him unprompted. It’s language I tried to use for a long time as a teacher with my students, but it’s language that I don’t always believe about my own self. I so badly want the kids I meet to be sure of their value, perhaps because in a deep-down place I forget or doubt my own.

As the film continues, we catch moments where Fred Rogers may have wrestled with that same self-doubt. It’s stunning to me that such a tender, loving heart would question his own worth and ability. But that is precisely what so many tender hearts do.

After stopping production on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and launching an ultimately unsuccessful program for adults, he faced the possibility of making more episodes of the Neighborhood. The doubts he typed in a note break my heart and sound chillingly familiar.

“Am I kidding myself that I’m able to write a script again?… Why don’t I trust myself. Really that’s what it’s all about… that and not wanting to go through the agony of creation. AFTER ALL THESE YEARS IT’S JUST AS BAD AS EVER. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the damned trying to create?”

I wonder that, too, Fred. It’s true for me. And I like to tell myself it’s just me, that there must be something wrong with me, that maybe I’m not meant to create after all… oh, the temptation to doubt that steers us away from the very things we are made for!

His note continues: “…Oh well, the hour cometh and now IS when I’ve got to do it. GET TO IT, FRED. GET TO IT… But don’t let anybody ever tell anybody else that it was easy. It wasn’t.”

I think I’m going to adapt it and put it on my wall. GET TO IT, SELF. Doubts be damned.

Years later, he was asked to come out of retirement to record a televised response to 9/11. His nerves were evident, and he confessed, “I just don’t know what good these are going to do.” The man whose platform was constructed upon doing good was not infallible. He doubted his gift, the goodness that spread from his wisdom and engagement of helping children interact with themselves and the world. Especially when faced with the enormity of a nation grieving unthinkable terror, he was blinded to how his meager offering could bring healing and peace. I have heard similar words from so many who are tempted to shy away from their calling, or even from a simple act of mercy. I have said them myself. Imagine the good the world would be deprived of if Fred had succumbed to his uncertainties—if we all succumbed to them.

Each time the film revealed a moment of Mr. Rogers' doubts, I felt both the pang of wanting him to know that yes, he was good and loved and it was worth it, and the pang of familiarity with my own struggles in that arena. I wonder if the former is how God feels when he hears our thoughts enter that skeptical territory.

Jenna Badeker

His wife and colleagues give insight into how different characters he created were extensions of him and those around him. They suggest that Daniel Striped Tiger voiced the little boy still inside him, the boy who questioned and felt deeply. In one episode, Daniel sings out loud what so many of us have wondered inside.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not like anyone else I know
When I’m asleep or even awake
Sometimes I get to dreaming that I’m just a fake
I’m not like anyone else
Others I know are big and are wild
I’m very small and quite tame
Most of the time I’m weak and I’m mild
Do you suppose that’s a shame
Often I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not supposed to be scared am I
Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake
Wondering isn’t it true that the strong never break
I’m not like anyone else I know
I’m not like anyone else.”

Sure, it’s a song written for children. But it sounds honest and confessional from the author. (It also sounds like what I’ve read about Enneagram type fours…) Moments like this are what made the program so powerful. Rogers’ ministry feels so profound not merely in spite of his self-doubt, but because he pours it out into his characters. His vulnerability creates a space for anyone who has thought such things to hear it spoken aloud and be met with a message of love and reassurance.

Joanne Rogers reveals an instance of this self-doubt close to the end of Fred’s life. They had been reading from Matthew 25, which includes the passage on the separation of the sheep and the goats. A while later, from his bed, Fred asked her, “Do you think I’m a sheep?” He dedicated his life to serving God by serving children, he poured himself tirelessly into his ministry, and yet he still questioned his salvation and his worth.

I have fallen prey to this perpetual doubt. We have a blessed assurance, promises from the Lord, and I am ready to remind other hurting souls that they are seen and loved and treasured. I fully believe it, too—they’re not a set of platitudes, but a burning desire for another person to see what I see and know how wonderfully he or she is made.  Yet deep down, the question remains, “…me, though?” I keep an endless laundry list of the ways I’ve come up short, the limitations of my creativity and my stamina and my craft. The ways I could be considered unworthy of love. The wondering if my efforts will really do any good. Each time the film revealed a moment of Mister Rogers’ doubts, I felt both the pang of wanting him to know that yes, he was good and loved and it was worth it, and the pang of familiarity with my own struggles in that arena. I wonder if the former is how God feels when he hears our thoughts enter that skeptical territory.

Doubts like these can keep us from serving others and making art. However, they are the very reason we need to press on and do it. For every negative thought, there is likely someone else thinking the same thing. They need to know they’re not alone and need to be told they are loved just the way they are. And we need to receive that reassurance when it’s spoken back to us. In this way, we can continue the legacy of honesty and worth that Mister Rogers left behind, and we can continue to impress the essence of the love of God on those we encounter.

Jenna Badeker is a musician and writer currently living in Maryland. She is half of the duo Wild Harbors with her husband, Chris. She also has a sweet dwarf rabbit named Duncan who lives in her living room... which makes it a literal Rabbit Room.


7 Comments

  1. Dave Kuhns

    Thank you Jenna. I needed to hear this today. I’ve been wanting to watch this documentary too. I grew up with Mr. Rogers, and adored him!

  2. Andy Cheely

    Jenna, I too found the Daniel Striped Tiger song among the most poignant of moments in this beautiful film. But the best line was, “thank you for making it a duet.” For as sure as our doubts and fears stalk us, it is the repeated meditating on the true truth of the gospel that is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy that wins the day and owns the melody line at the end.

  3. Thomas Leonard

    @tleonard

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflections on the movie. I resonated in those places as well…. Just reading those lines and thinking about the film again makes me wonder who in our current age could embody such a grace-filled and truth-inspired role as he did…

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