Mr. Rogers is popular again. I imagine I know why, and I imagine you do, too.
There’s a new movie about Fred Rogers coming out, based on one of the most remarkable magazine articles I’ve ever read. It was a profile published in Esquire back in 1998, when he was still with us. Videos of him on YouTube have millions and millions of views, including an astonishing back-and-forth between him and a hard-hearted, cynical U.S. senator during a hearing that wound up preserving millions of dollars in funding for PBS.
I spent many hours as a young child watching Mr. Rogers with my mother and my sister in the basement of my family’s Newington home. I loved the trolley and the Land of Make-Believe. I laughed at the puppets and listened to the stories, and when that kind and gentle man said that each one of us was precious and special, I believed him.
I outgrew Mr. Rogers at some point, as children do. He died in 2003. But as I got older I found that I thought of him more and more, especially as the world seemed to get darker and darker. And now, as our society seems to be unraveling before our eyes, talking about and quoting Mr. Rogers has become part of the strange and sad ritual Americans walk through, numb and grieving, following mass shootings.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Mr. Rogers told us to look for the helpers, and they are always there. Some people don’t like this advice because they feel like it’s too simplistic or it’s not suited to our more divided and dangerous reality. It also speaks volumes about our failure to make a better world for our children that advice meant to help those children is used instead by helpless adults.
But that quote persists because it’s a necessary reminder that there is still good in the world, and that anger, loss, and sorrow isn’t all that we can feel. For every awful act of terrorism and violence, there’s a small but persistent countercurrent of empathy, warmth, selflessness, and kindness.
In El Paso over the weekend, for instance, there was a good man who ran back into danger to help get children to safety. Then there are those who put themselves in harm’s way to try and save others, like the brave-hearted Kendrick Castillo in Colorado, who died to save his friends.
Our leaders don’t seem to care about them. President Trump’s name and hateful rhetoric were in the manifesto of the white supremacist terrorist who killed so many in El Paso, but you know as well as I do that he and his fans will make up excuses and then continue doing what they’ve always done. Mitch McConnell offers condolences but sits on background check legislation, not allowing the Senate to even debate what we ought to do next. The crowds in Dayton chanted “Do something!” at Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, but you can bet that he won’t listen.
That makes a lot of people absolutely furious, including me. But it feels like there’s nowhere for that anger to go. We could march in the streets. We could scream online. We could just yell into the void.
Mr. Rogers had a song called “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” about how to channel anger in a positive way.
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?
I wish it was that easy to take this anger that’s so heavy and ripe and just turn it into something good. Not that there aren’t things that need doing. We could try to flip the Senate or elect a new president, for instance.
But there’s a long time until November 2020. And between now and then, we know a lot of people are going to die at the hands of hateful killers. So maybe what we need to do is keep working, keep focusing, but also try not to let that anger eat us alive.
I think maybe what I’ll do is go for a walk right now. And when that Mr. Rogers movie comes out later this year, I’ll go see it with my mother, and remember that the world can still be okay every once in a while.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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