Fred Rogers invited all the children who watched his show each week to be his neighbor. Still, with COVID-19 raging for almost a year now, children and adults find their neighbors are potential dangers for contagion and that between every face stands a mask walling off persons from each other and isolating in ways that suffocate and repel. Ironically, our social distancing, which keeps us from our neighbor, is the way we’ve been asked to love our neighbor. We should celebrate that sacrificial love even as we acknowledge the anxious, fatigued reality of lockdowns, masks, distancing, and LED screens that exhaust our energies while kindling the embers of our restlessness.
Fred Rogers did not teach children how to live through a pandemic, but he had many profound things to say about loving our neighbors and finding our identity in that calling. He was also a virtual parent to thousands of 80s latchkey kids who grew up in a world without daycare while experiencing both parents having to work. There are hundreds of testimonies online of people who, as children, felt that Fred Rogers was the only adult who loved them and cared for them. In his slow, methodical cadence, he was a calming presence to children isolated in front of TV screens and missing the stabilizing routines that give structure to life. Perhaps Fred’s theology, which drove his creative spirit, has something to teach children and adults about how to survive, thrive, and love others in a pandemic. Here are five lessons that Fred Rogers can teach us about living in a pandemic:
- Routines matter: Everyone who’s watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood knows that Fred always began the show by singing, It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, taking off his jacket, putting on his cardigan, and changing out his shoes for sneakers. In later interviews, Fred said he came up with the opening as a way to teach children the importance of a daily routine. Children need structure, and teaching them to develop habits teaches discipline, resilience, and comfort. With the loss of our routines through the effects of COVID, we know what it’s like to experience the discomfort of losing them. However, Fred Rogers would encourage us to find comfort and stability in the little routines we can still do or develop into new habits. God, too, knows the importance of routines. He calls us to a Sabbath rest each week and teaches us to remember his Supper. Routines remind us that some things are still in our control and are worth doing. When everything else is spinning out of control, put on a cardigan and an old pair of sneakers. Maybe even sing a song. Develop routines that are simple but enriching.
- Persevere through challenges. It wasn’t just Daniel Tiger that had to learn to work through his difficulties; Fred Rogers did too. Born a chubby and shy child, Fred was bullied and teased at school. He had terrible asthma attacks and used to engage in self-soothing by making up songs on the family piano. When he matured, his struggles continued as he had a difficult time graduating from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. It took him eight years instead of the usual three. Many told him to give up seminary as his TV show started to gain ground on PBS, but Fred thought that the show was his calling as a minister and did not want to drop out. In 1963, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister and throughout his life considered his show a part of his Christian ministry. The Bible, too, talks a lot about perseverance, often connecting its success to the vision that sustains it. Paul says we run to win the race and that we should keep our eyes fixed on the prize. It may be challenging, but during these times, we do well to remind ourselves that as Christians, our prize is serving Christ. Pandemics do not negate that invitation. We may need to be creative, but we can renew our sense of purpose by thinking of ways we serve God with what we’ve been given.
- Embrace the uncertainty of life as a reality of what it means to live. Truth can hurt, but it also heals. The fact is, life rarely goes according to plan and frequently is hard-set against our plans. Before he died, Fred gave his Neighborhood team a statement to put on his website whenever his death was announced. That statement read, “Remember that feelings are natural and normal and that happy and sad times are part of life.” Blessedly for us, God is with us in all the seasons of our life. If we accept that God is with us and that life will have ups and downs, we will be better able to pass through our challenges with hope and peace.
- Neighbors are good listeners. At his public memorial service, one of Fred’s sons, reflecting on his father, said, “Dad was one of the best listeners.” And so is our heavenly Father. We can come to him in prayer anytime, and he will always turn his face towards us and listen to us. And because he has a Father’s heart, he will always help us by his own mysterious ways. And we should strive to be like him. Maybe we cannot be right next to our neighbors, but we can give them a call, we can facetime or DM them and ask them how they are doing and really listen. Time is our most valuable resource, and it’s always passing away. To listen to someone is literally to give them a share in your life. Listening is connection. That’s why so many children felt the presence of Fred Rogers through the TV screen—they thought he was listening to their fears and questions and taking the time to respond back gently. Fred also asked his viewers many questions each week so that he could model listening back.
- Don’t be afraid to find joy in simplicity. COVID-19 has made life much simpler—and “simple” here does not mean “easy,” but more like, “free from ostentation or display.” Christian theology has long confessed that one of God’s attributes is simplicity. The Bible says the Lord is one. To embrace simplicity is to embrace the heart of truth, which, while being multifaceted, is still essentially graspable. God is love, and in Jesus, we are saved by grace. That simple message can be endlessly developed and deepened, but it only ever remains true so long as its simplicity is clearly seen.
Fred Rogers once asked the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma to play a song he had written called “Tree, Tree, Tree, I Love You.” Ma was worried the song was too simple and would not sound good, but he trusted Fred and performed it. Over the years, Ma received letter after letter from young children who shared the importance of that segment with him, some even saying they went into a life of music because of it. After Fred passed away, Ma decided to play “Tree, Tree, Tree, I Love You” at Fred’s funeral. He played the piece and combined it with a selection from Bach, a juxtaposition of Bach’s complexity and Rogers’ simplicity. As late as March of this year (2020), Ma played the piece again and posted it to his Twitter account, remarking that music can close the gap in social distancing. Commenting on meeting Rogers for the first time, Ma said,
“What was absolutely disarming about Fred Rogers was that he was so genuine, and the physical proximity between two adults which made me so uncomfortable at first was, of course, the physical proximity that makes children very comfortable with adults.”
By embracing simplicity in these times, we might even find a new intimacy. So, journal, pray, call a friend, watch the birds, sing a song, or just practice gratitude. In the simplicity each moment brings, we have cause to open ourselves up to its gifts. And as we become more aware of our blessings, we become freer to be blessings to our (distanced) but not disconnected neighbors.