How Mr. Rogers’s Analog Show Speaks to Us in a Digital Age
The popularity of the new Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? solidifies what we already know: the renowned host has earned celebrity status, even though his gentle demeanor and unassuming loafers would suggest that he’d likely resist such an accolade. There is, however, no question that Mister Rogers and his children’s shows—Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the spin-off series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood—have firmly established that Rogers is a cultural icon. His warm message of neighborliness has compelled countless children (and adults) to calmly listen and learn as he explored the world. With the debut of Morgan Neville’s documentary detailing the life of the star, many fans are waxing nostalgic about their favorite neighbor. Equipped with a limited budget and simple puppets, Mister Rogers forged a path into the young hearts of an entire generation, offering them friendship and love from a glowing television screen.
But his example is not only comforting—it’s almost prescient. Long before any experts began wringing their hands over the lack of interpersonal relationships in the digital age, Mr. Rogers instructed a generation of future iPhone addicts in the ways of kind communication. It’s not possible that Mister Rogers could have known how important that message would become. Our technology-saturated culture fosters loneliness, suspicion, and hostility toward one another. And while many children’s television shows, such as Sesame Street, focus on friendships born from the proximity of neighborhoods, they may seem irrelevant to current audiences precisely because they assume that we know our neighbors.
But many of us barely know ourselves, much less the people that live an entire block away. And while there is certainly a joyful obligation to befriend those who live nearby, the modern phenomena of social media offers us an entirely new community—people with whom we interact, but don’t actually know. This should be particularly unsettling to Christians, as it seems impossible to obey Christ’s command to love the neighbor we do not know. How can we love strangers when so many of our interactions are with people shrouded in avatars limited to 140 characters? Are we required—or are we even able—to reach into the void and love people we have never actually met?
Mister Rogers offered us solid, exemplary proof, in standard definition, that we can still be good neighbors, even if we barely know our neighbors. He showed us how to navigate murky social interactions with confident love and relentless kindness. It’s important to recognize that Mister Rogers did not personally know his viewers. Nevertheless, his principles of neighborliness proved to be a force of incredible good, inspiring others to become better people themselves.
Much has been rightfully praised about Mister Rogers’s character, but it’s especially illuminating to consider the invisible side of this phenomenal equation: the viewers. The target audience for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was (and still is) young children, people who often lack developed social graces. In fact, one might need to look no further than the nearest four-year-old to find clear examples of a person living by impulse, as preschoolers can be selfish, inattentive, energetic, whiny, and even hostile.
However, when Mister Rogers addresses his audience, he barely acknowledges their propensity for vice. According to Mister Rogers, his viewers are also patient learners. They are curious about the world. They are interesting, worthy of conversational questions and long pauses for their responses. They may be tempted toward anger, greed, pride, and malice, but they are fully capable of resisting such temptations by exerting self-control. They make each day special. They are, in short, his neighbors.
Mister Rogers’s secret is not his charming jingles or enthusiasm for sweaters. It’s his remarkable faith in human nature, that people have an incredible ability to respond to and grow from steadfast love. Mister Rogers confidently appealed to the goodness in his audience, which, in turn, inspired them to try to be good.When we were just children, Mister Rogers gave us the tools we would need to combat the loneliness and isolation we would face as adults in the digital era.
This is great news for us. I often park my children in front of the television with their life coach, Daniel Tiger (an animated spin-off of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). And while Daniel sings songs that chide my children to think about the feelings of others, I scroll through my social media feeds to discover that people are… not thinking about the feelings of others. Like preschoolers, many of us are often selfish, inattentive, whiny, and even quite hostile. But instead of throwing fits in the grocery store aisles, we throw our fits with 140+ characters in the digital public square. As so many experts have relentlessly lamented, we are a nation divided—by politics, religion, and a fierce commitment to preserve selfish feelings and preferences.
This issue is evident in our personal interactions with others and in thirty seconds of observation on social media. We don’t like each other, and many of us relish the opportunity to proclaim our dislike. We talk over one another and hurl insults from our keyboards. It seems that so many in our culture are frantic to distance themselves from their neighbors, to hastily stake out an exclusive place for themselves, to scare off any possible threat to their personal comfort. It’s strange to imagine what Mister Rogers might say to us if he were here.
But while it’s strange to imagine, it’s no mystery. Because we know him so well, we can easily imagine exactly what Mister Rogers might do. He would invite us to come into his home and take our shoes off. He would show us his goldfish and introduce us to his friends. He would treat us nicely, as though we’re capable of friendship. It would be easy to respond in kind, and to think that, if we met Mister Rogers on the street, we would be strangers, but we would feel like friends because of his faithful friendliness toward us (this has actually happened to some). He would ask us about our feelings, and he would pause to listen—to truly listen—to our responses. He would empathize, and share a relatable experience. We would feel calmer. We would think more clearly. We would leave better people than we were when we arrived.
It may seem simplistic, or even romanticized, but there’s incredible power in community, even the invisible community that Mister Rogers created by speaking toward a camera lens. The interaction may have been one-sided, but the love was real, and because it was real, it transformed many who received it. The secret, of course, is that loving people makes them easier to love. That’s the transformative nature of love at work, the tendency humans have to respond to love with loveliness.
It’s easy to understand this process, but hard to replicate. We’re deeply rooted in self-preservation, which, of course, is the opposite of love. We carve out profiles on social media and fiercely defend those digital kingdoms. Our cultural norms allow us to create specific criteria for the people that we love, to demand that we name those who are too different than us as enemies. But there is no healing in that. There is no transformation, no redemption, no courage. It meets no needs, but rather creates them. We may have moved past make believe and mailmen, but still desperately need our neighbors. As Daniel Tiger reminds us, “in some ways we are different, but in so many ways, we are the same.”
It is true that loving your neighbor means reaching out into the void, facing ugliness and hostility, and opening yourself up to rejection. It involves patient, gentle interaction, bearing through disagreement, believing that people can be better than they appear, treating others like they’re already the people you hope they’ll become, and enduring the scathing hostility that comes with online interactions. It requires a deep strength, one that’s bound up in the kind of love Mister Rogers offered. That love isn’t flimsy or mawkish. It gently convicts, constantly encourages, and affirms the good, however slight. It’s steadfast and powerful, the kind that can change communities, redeem brokenness, and turn unrestrained preschoolers into calm, confident children.
When we were just children, Mister Rogers gave us the tools we would need to combat the loneliness and isolation we would face as adults in the digital era. In that sense, it’s still possible to carry on Mister Rogers’s legacy of being a good neighbor. And that, my friends, is a good feeling.