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[With the release of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (which you should all go see immediately!) we thought we’d repost this excellent article from Jason Gray.]
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (What is essential is invisible to the eyes – from Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince)
These are the words on a plaque that hung in the office of my new hero. Who might that be you may wonder? Kierkegard? Billy Graham? Bono?
Would you be surprised if I told you it was…Mister Rogers?
Let me explain:
During a run of dates in TX in 2009, I was talking with keyboardist Neil Tankersly about what we were reading when he recommended a book to me about children’s television icon Mister Rogers. My interest level in this kind of book was at about negative 137, but I pretended to be interested enough to be polite, but not enough to encourage him to tell me any more more about it. Whether my passive cues went unrecognized or ignored, I’m not sure, but Neil kept on telling me about how life-changing this book was and then went so far as to begin looking up YouTube videos of Mister Rogers for me to watch.
I felt that brand of social anxiety that comes on you when you’re getting pulled into a conversational vortex about something you couldn’t care less about. His enthusiasm made me seriously doubt not only my new friend’s taste in books, but also question his masculinity. I mean, what kind of man gets that excited about Mister Rogers of all people?
I remember dying a little bit inside at the prospect of having to sit there and watch what I imagined would be lame video clips of a man I had pre-judged as a bland, out of step, sweet but weak cardigan-wearing milquetoast with little to interest or offer a cultured and savvy sophisticate like myself. But then the video started playing.
The first of my confessions to you today is maybe already apparent: that I can be self-righteous and arrogant enough to be generally blind to the goodness being offered to me. Thank God for good men like Neil who push through my passive aggression to keep offering it to me.
But my second and more relevant confession to you today is that I couldn’t have been more wrong about Mister Rogers. We were barely 30 seconds into the first clip when tears started welling up in my eyes and I had to do my best to choke back embarrassing sobs as I watched Fred Rogers’s acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards—a speech so utterly disarming in it’s selflessness and grace that as the camera scanned the audience it was clear that, for all the propriety and pretense that might be expected at a gathering of Hollywood’s powerful and elite, there was something more powerful still: love. As Rogers invited each of them to think of someone who had loved them into being, the emotional armor fell away, the make-up ran.
What was visited upon them—and me—through this remarkable man (via my kind friend Neil) was a powerful moment of humanity and grace.
So now I come to you, reader, willing and even eager to risk you thinking me uncool by daring to recommend, as Neil Tankersly did to me, that you too would do well to spend a little time in Mister Roger’s neighborhood.
After returning home, I immediately ordered the book, I’m Proud Of You by Tim Madigan, the story of a surprising friendship that was born out of a visit when Madigan—a journalist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram-–flew to Pittsburgh to interview Fred Rogers for a piece he was writing.
Not expecting much, Tim was immediately disarmed by the intense sincerity and humble kindness of this unassuming man who was a giant in children’s television. As Rogers spoke to him about his philosophy of imagining he was looking through the camera into the eyes of each child watching, trying to be fully present to their feelings and needs, Tim writes of how Rogers demonstrated this the first time they spoke:
“Do you know what the most important thing in the world is to me right now?”
“No,” I said.
“Talking to Mr. Tim Madigan on the telephone.”
At the time of their initial meeting, Madigan was in the throes of a desperate depression and on the verge of divorce. His personal and professional life caving in around him, he found an unlikely offer of friendship from Rogers—a relationship that would help shape his reformation in the years to come.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away here, but the book chronicles how Rogers’s wisdom, kindness, and unconditional love guided Madigan through the darkest days of his life, giving him the grace and the courage to find a way out of the darkness, and giving him a glimpse of the Jesus Rogers testified about.
The book is named after a key moment in their relationship when Madigan realizes that much of his pain and inability to love stemmed from never feeling like he could be good enough for his dad. In a moment of truth, Madigan wrote a courageously honest letter to Rogers saying:
“…the last several years have been a very profound time of intense personal pain and great healing, a time of great self discovery as I’ve tried to come to terms with the realities of my life, past and present. At the forefront of my mind and soul right now is how hard I tried to get my dad to be proud of me, through sports, through school, through the ways I tried to be obedient and good. But no matter what I did, it never seemed enough. I could never wrest from him the sense of acceptance I so desperately craved as a child and have been craving ever since.
I realize now that God is the ultimate source for that kind of love and acceptance. But I have also realized that I have gravitated toward older men in my life without really knowing why. Now I think I know….
…I read Henri Nouwen this morning, and several chapters in the book of Matthew, and meditated for a long time on my pain, and realized what I need to do… In your letters and during our brief time together, you have done so much to teach me how to be a person and a man. And now I have this favor to ask of you. Will you be proud of me?“
Such risky vulnerability! A risk that was rewarded: Rogers’s reply was immediate and transformative:
“YES! A resounding YES!
I will be proud of you. I am proud of you! … Nothing you could tell me could change my YES for you. Please remember that…. I feel blessed to be one of your friends. Only God can arrange such mutually trusting relationships…. YES, Tim, YES.”
Every letter Madigan would receive from Rogers after this closed with the initials, IPOY—I’m proud of you—a simple and constant affirmation that would seep like water into the deepest, darkest corners of his life.
Throughout the book, Madigan invites us to eavesdrop on their conversations and correspondence, which throughout reveal Fred Rogers as a faithful Christian man who lived out the gospel with the kind of grace, kindness, and unconditional love that every soul longs and hungers for. “He was a man in touch with the eternal,” his friends would say of him after his death.
Mister Rogers could be an easy target of ridicule and parody (and even was in Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” on SNL), and the book talks about a piece that Esquire, a men’s magazine whose content is just shy of Playboy in its edginess and carnal sensibilities, did on Rogers in the late ’90s. What good could come of a feature in a magazine so antithetical to Roger’s priorities? The worldly and cynical journalist—whose predisposition to Rogers was much like mine—was surprised to find himself victim to the irresistible kindness, selflessness, and humility of this man who saw his ministry as not only broadcasting grace to children, but helping to put us in touch with the child in all of us. The journalist recounts their first encounter:
“…and though I tried to ask him questions about himself, he always turned the questions back on me. And when I finally got him to talk about the puppets that were the comfort of his lonely boyhood, he looked at me, his blue eyes at once mild and steady, and asked, ‘What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Maybe a puppet or a special toy, or maybe just a stuffed animal you loved very much. Did you have a special friend like that, Tom?’
‘Yes, Mister Rogers.’
‘Did your special friend have a name, Tom?’
‘Yes, Mister Rogers. His name was Old Rabbit.’
‘Old Rabbit. Oh, and I’ll bet the two of you were together since he was a very young rabbit. Would you like to tell me about Old Rabbit, Tom?’
And it was just about then when I was spilling the beans about my special friend, that Mister Rogers rose from his corner couch and stood suddenly in front of me with a black camera in hand. “Can I take your picture, Tom?’ he asked. ‘I’d like to take your picture. I like to take pictures of all my new friends so that I can show them to Joanne [his wife]…’ And then in the dark room, there was a wallop of white light, and Mister Rogers disappeared behind it…”
In another scene, we are witness to the tender sensitivity of Rogers when he goes to visit a severely handicapped boy with cerebral palsy:
“At first the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that he … got mad and began hating and biting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room to talk to him. Mister Rogers didn’t leave though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, ‘I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?’ On his computer the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said: ‘I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?’ And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck… Because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, he said he would … and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean that God likes him too.
As for Mister Rogers himself… he doesn’t look at the story the same way the boy did or I did. In fact When Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him for being smart–for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself–and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me first with puzzlement and then with surprise. ‘Oh heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.’
The book chronicles how Rogers’s friendship helped walk Madigan through the process of reconciling with his wife, forgiving and loving his father, surviving depression (“The Furies” as Rogers called it), and grieving his brother’s death from cancer. Throughout are excerpts from their conversation that make us witness to an unabashed commitment to intimacy that, for me as the reader, had the effect of gently shining a light on my own sad attempts to keep people and love at arm’s length, my own fear of risking love and intimacy.
Throughout the book, I was delighted to learn that Rogers and I shared an admiration for many of the same spiritual writers like Frederick Buechner, Anne Lamott, and Rogers’s friend and favorite: Henri Nouwen—an author whose work the Holy Spirit has used to shape and guide my own ministry.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” reads the plaque on the wall in his office, and it was the essential that Rogers was always trying to impart to us. In the book we learn how intentional he was in his television show, understanding it as a ministry and lovingly using it to impart the values of the gospel that were so dear to him: grace, forgiveness, kindness, and trust in an Unconditional Love.
I’m Proud Of You is an understated, well-written, and modest book. But within its pages I found something more than the sum of it’s parts. It is the kind of story that not only inspires you to be more human, live an ennobled kind of life, and to love better than you thought you could, but also reveals the grace that makes these things possible. It’s a cleansing book, one that blew through me like a light and fragrant spring breeze, warming places where the frost had set in.
But looking back over what I’ve written here, I can’t help but feel I’m failing this book because I keep talking about what it’s about, sharing little passages and tidbits that are interesting as matters of fact. But what the book is about is less important than what the book is and what it did to me. Because what it is, of course, is a window in the world to offer a glimpse of another kind of life that could be lived—the kind of life the gospel reveals. In Mister Rogers we discover a man shaped by the tender heart of Jesus, and as I read I found myself looking for ways to bless others, to be more present to them, to be less afraid to speak tender words of intimacy to those around me, to be kinder and more forgiving.
As for what the book did to me, it caused me to ask myself: “what might my life look like if I better incarnated the grace of God? How might the lives of those I love–my family, friends, loved ones–be different? Or any of those whom my life touches? Though I was never crazy about the whole What Would Jesus Do craze a number of years ago, I nonetheless find myself asking a similar question: what would Mister Rogers do? I mean no disrespect to Jesus, of course. It’s just that Jesus sets such an impossibly high bar, you know? But in Mister Rogers I find a flesh and bone man, an imperfect sinner like me, set free to love and live the kind of life that Jesus revealed. If Mister Rogers can find that kind of grace, maybe it’s available to me, too.
In other words, I found I’m Proud Of You to be a potent invitation to spend beautiful days in the neighborhood of Mister Rogers, a neighborhood made beautiful by the grace of God. It has stirred a desire in me to live a life that makes space for that kind of grace and beauty in my own neighborhood—the one I take with me wherever I go.
(Here are the two video clips I mentioned earlier, both from the presentation of his Lifetime Acheivement Award at the Emmys.)