It might sound like a bad Jeff Foxworthy joke, but you know you were born in the early ’80s if some of your earliest memories involve slap bracelets, Teddy Ruxpin dolls, and a gang of “e’er-do-wells” named Daniel, X, and Henrietta, along with a prince, king, and queen named for days of the week (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, respectively).

Unlike slap bracelets and talking teddy bears, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t an icon of childhood limited to the ’80s. The show debuted in 1968 and by the time I started watching 16 years later, everything was in color and Fred had a bit of soft grey around his ears.

Recently, I attended a view-and-discuss event featuring the Morgan Neville documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The theater was packed, and during the many stretches of silence in the film (an effect modeled after Fred’s own contemplative style) I worried that a teary sniff from any one of us might lead the entire house to weeping. You can find reviews elsewhere, but I will say this: Mister Rogers appears to have been exactly who he seems—a quiet perfectionist with strong ideas and the gumption to follow through with what he believed in. The ordained Presbyterian minister and children’s TV host believed, among other things, that people have a basic need to know they’re loved and that children were important and culturally undervalued. He believed feelings were “mentionable and manageable.” He had strong opinions about the power of TV, insisting that that power should be wielded with great care.

After the film, a haunting question was raised during the discussion, and it’s stuck with me since: Did Fred Rogers die with his hope intact? Taking it a step further, is hope itself fragile? Can it withstand life in America today?

The line of thinking was this: as we see Mister Rogers retire, we’re also reminded that he was called upon regularly to comment during moments of crisis. We looked to him for answers—what do we do with our feelings after this event? How do we talk to our kids? The climax of this was a series of PSAs he was asked to do after 9/11. Mister Rogers sits, dressed to film, looking frail, and not necessarily because of his age. He breathes deeply, and we’re told that he really wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it. It’s a sad thing to see the one who has helped us not feel afraid look overwhelmed. Maybe this lies outside the bounds of what he’s been telling us all these years. Maybe now, we should be afraid.

In the theater that night the mic was passed around several times, but no one really answered the question. People talked about who is taking care of kids today and if we could ever have another Rogers figure, but the question was left on the table.

I’ve considered the questions, and the first answer is actually pretty clear. Near the end of the film, Fred’s wife recounts one of the last conversations she had with her husband before he went into a coma. Referring to a passage he’d been reading in Matthew 25, he asked her if she thought he was a “sheep.” Her answer: Fred, if ever there was a sheep, you’re one. Mister Rogers hoped that living his convictions about the dignity of all people would change the world; yet there’s reason to believe his hope wasn’t rooted in that change, but rather in the God who gives dignity in the first place. So even though Mister Rogers looked worn out as he readied himself for the PSAs after the massive devastation of 9/11, his hope apparently remained.

But then the question comes to us—can our hope remain? Or perhaps, can it survive?

In Scripture, hope is used to mean something like a trusting expectation of things unseen. Romans 8 says we are saved in the hope of redemption that undoes the groaning of creation and our very selves. Hope is rooted in belief in things unseen, and often the Christian life is a delicate dance of belief and unbelief, one with which Mister Rogers was probably well acquainted. A story in the Gospel of Mark tells of a father bringing his demon-possessed boy to Jesus saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus assures him that anything is possible for those who believe, and the man summarizes the mystery of the Christian life in one cry: “I believe! Help my unbelief.”

There is great relief seeing this expressed in Scripture (something I’m confident Fred Rogers would agree with)—I believe! Help me when I doubt. I hope! Help me when it falters. In heavy cultural and political moments like ours, we too can cry out in both our hope and despair: “I believe you will usher in restoration that undoes the pain I see in our world today. Help me continue believing it.” What a relief to know that these feelings, too, are mentionable and manageable.

The emotional climax of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as I experienced it, captures this duality well. In episode 1578, called “Making Mistakes,” Daniel Striped Tiger sings a song with Lady Aberlin in which he reveals that he sometimes feels broken:

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

The moment of truth is when Lady Aberlin sings back, over the lies and fears Daniel expresses:

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping
When you are waking
You are my friend

It’s really true
I like you
Crying or shaking or dreaming or breaking
There’s no one mistaking it
You’re my best friend

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping
When you are waking
You’re not a fake
You’re no mistake
You are my friend

The verses are eventually sung as a duet—Daniel’s high-pitched fearful voice rising, then being covered by Lady Aberlin’s melodic reassurance. This scene is moving because it captures what we see in Mister Rogers throughout the film—he fears, he doubts, he speaks truth over the lies for others and, one has to think, for himself. But it’s also moving because it captures what can happen in my own heart, and in the heart of any Christian—voices of fear and doubt rising, then being covered and pushed back by the assurance of things unseen; of a God who is there, who left his rightful place in heaven to restore. The duality is essential—forego one side and you have half a structure that will surely crumble, either under the weight of despair or in the fragility of unfounded hope, like freestanding scaffolding.

But for Christian believers, this is life in the “already and not yet.” And this duality is why, for the Christian, hope can remain intact. The lie of fear is matched by the voice of hope itself in Jesus Christ. In him, eternal hope is no match for life in this world. And to believe is no mistake.

1 Comment

  1. Really great questions surrounding a pretty incredible film. A good reminder of how powerful and frustratingly difficult hope can be in this world.

    For me the film drove me to revisit the Good Samaritan parable. So much of Roger’s personal struggle seemed to resonate with the themes of that passage.

    I wrote a piece on it here, just for reference and interest. I am still floored by the way he walked with such certainty and conviction but also much doubt and wrestling. A real inspiration.

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