When I was a little kid, we had one TV. Black-and-white. And it was in the basement.
Three channels, plus whatever-the-hell UHF was. Was that a real channel? Or was that just someone with a walkie-talkie and the Indian Head test screen? I dunno. Maybe I was just scarred for life by the UHF channel.
For those who never experienced the Rubik's Cube-of-television that was UHF, allow me to describe what was required to watch this channel. Getting the UHF channel to come in clearly without all the fuzzy-white static which sounded like a blast furnace, and simultaneously getting the Vertical Hold to stay in place instead of spinning like someone just pulled a slot machine lever required the fingertip dexterity of a safe cracker, the patience of Job, and the gymnastics ability of Olga Korbut. You had to fold tin foil into a perfect 3x5 flag on the antennae, stand with one foot on the ground, the other against the wall, one hand on the tuning knob and the other raised in the air in just the right position as if praying for the TV Gods to grant you dispensation to watch something on UHF. Move one scintilla of an iota, and the picture was lost and you had to radio NASA for help.
Public Television programs were on UHF.
So given that four- to seven-year-olds aren't naturally endowed with the aforementioned patience to consistently crack the UHF code, I never watched Mr. Rogers. Or Sesame Street. Or Zoom.
I don't feel like my life is incomplete or anything because I didn't grow up on those shows. Trust me, I had a great childhood. All of this is to say that I've come to the Fred Rogers Appreciation Society very late in life. But thanks to the recent Tom Hanks movie and the documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" I've been inspired to learn more about this incredible human being.
As I learn more about him, I'm struck by several things. I'm not nominating Fred Rogers for sainthood or anything, but he was Christ-like. I mean, by all accounts, if there was ever a person on the planet who qualifies for that description, it's Fred Rogers. Not only in demeanor, behavior, purity of spirit, and clarity of purpose; Fred Rogers had doubts, and the heavy feelings of the weight of responsibility. Especially towards the end of his life. And also because he was constantly giving from a seemingly bottomless well, one cup at a time.
But because my antennae (no tin-foil flag required) are always out for this kind of thing, I am struck by the Unintended Positives part of the Fred Rogers story.
Where did his strong sense of the power of make believe come from? Where did he experience the true gift of imagination? How did he know that pretending and puppetry and storytelling are miraculous tools for healing a wounded psyche? Where did his sense of compassion -- especially for the most innocent and the most vulnerable -- come from? These are all obviously positives, and where did this endless well seem to spring from?
His own pain.
His childhood illnesses. A series of illnesses, in fact. He would've been described back then as a "sickly child." By his own admission, this series of illnesses made it very difficult for him to develop any lasting friendships. So he was in bed a lot. In his room. By himself. How did he cope through the loneliness and pain and discomfort?
He talked about when he was lying in bed, he would draw his knees up under the covers. And he'd pretend that each knee was a giant mountain. And his toys and characters played on and climbed those mountains and had many adventures. And because he didn't have anyone else to talk to, he knew he could talk to his puppets; his puppets could give voice to his own feelings that he couldn't express otherwise. Of course puppetry became a foundation of how he connected and communicated with kids throughout his career.
But the unintended positives of his childhood illnesses didn't end with his gifts of storytelling and creating magical imaginary lands.
He discovered that music and playing the piano could also help him express his feelings. Sometimes playing the notes softly where the felt hammers barely touched the piano wire. Or in the physicality of the crescendo to play forte...really forte...even to the point of pounding on the keys to express his frustration and anger. He then took this understanding of the relationshiop between music and the expression of emotions with him the rest of his life. So, music too became a cornerstone of how he communicated with and connected with kids.
Many of these kids, of course, were in pain themselves. And Mr. Rogers knew television could be incredibly useful in talking with kids about tough topics -- like divorce, like death, like unpleasant feelings such as anger or sadness. And like Unintended Positives' approach, the Mr. Rogers show was anything but pollyanna, head-in-the-sand, rainbows-and-unicorns. In fact, in his first week on the air, he discussed the Vietnam War, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy; he knew these were scary and confusing topics and many adults just didn't know how to talk to kids about these things. He dealt with them straight up.
Because of all those hours, days, weeks, and months he spent by himself. He never forgot how it feels to be a child with questions; he never forgot how it feels to not fully understand what is going on in the world. Again, this created a reservoir in him that he drew from a cup at a time to share with the rest of us.
The world today now feels like we're coming apart at the seams. We often speak and behave as if we are in a Cold Civil War. So what can I can do, even with my own fears and doubts as I stare into the Abyss of Cynicism in this world? What would Mr. Rogers tell us? What did he tell kids about dealing with a tragic event or a difficult time?
"Look for the Helpers," he said encouragingly. "In the midst of the chaos, there will always be people trying to help. Look for the Helpers."
So I have the same choice that Fred Rogers had while he was alone in his bedroom all those many days, weeks and months. I can sit and feel sorry for myself and become cynical about the state of society, and say, "What's the use?!"
I can look for the Helpers.
I can BE a Helper.
It's a pretty simple equation really: You can't be cynical and be a problem-solver at the same time. You can't be cynical and creative at the same time. You can't be cynical and be one of the Helpers. You just can't.
I have to ask myself (and to encourage others to do the same) that in these times, am I a Helper? Am I the type of person people will look to? Or am I Iike the Cynics who stand on the sidelines and make fun of people like Fred Rogers? Am I someone people will look to, or will those Seekers tell me to get the hell out of the way so they can find the people who are contributing?
Why do I want to be one of the Helpers, and why do I want to help grow a Community of Helpers, of contributors, of problem-solvers? The answer is as uncomplicated as Fred Rogers' beliefs and purpose, as stated in the lyrics of his show-closing song:
"It's a good feeling...a really good feeling..."