High on my list of favorite Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street (original version please). In it is an all-purpose, every season piece of wisdom: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”
Faith in institutions, secular and religious ones, is taking a shellacking these days. Confidence-measuring polls of public mood generally chart dives rather than spikes. Common sense tells us that building stronger communities is not going to happen when we are busily tearing down the institutions that have been cornerstones throughout our American experience. Yet, to borrow a recent phrase, we persist. It is an immense understatement to say these are not the most harmonious of times. Surveying the cultural and political landscapes, we see anger, fear, acrimony, hatred, venomous rhetoric, supremacist expressions, and divisive tactics galore. Worst of all, through word and action, our declaration to many people is: “We do not want you as our neighbor.”
For hardcore partisans of every persuasion, this can be motivational, provoking more antagonism and doubling down on discrimination. For the rest of us, this is all dismaying and discouraging. Before Thanksgiving, therapists were imparting advice about setting boundaries so that family gatherings would not turn into verbal or physical brawls over political disputes. Not exactly the Norman Rockwell image of the traditional feast.
Fortunately, Hollywood provided us with a cinematic antidote just in time for the holidays, a marvelous film titled A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Reviewers noted this is not a movie for kids. It is not a biopic of Pittsburgh’s Fred Rogers, nor is it the Neighborhood of Make Believe writ large. It is an uncommon and compelling depiction of how much his message and methods salved troubled adults.
A recent award-winning documentary gave insight into the heart and mind and appeal of Fred Rogers. The movie gives us a look at his soul. Goodness can be genuine and contagious. What a remarkable reassurance during tumultuous and tormented times, when many have come to doubt the existence of genuine goodness, and congenital kindness, and endless patience, and earnest belief. Trained as a minister, he did not come across as preachy, but perfectly non-judgmental.
It is surprising how many commentaries have appeared penned by adults who gave Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood short shrift when they were young. But now, looking at the programs through experienced eyes, they see more clearly meaning and value. In a similar manner, the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street inspired reevaluations about accepting feelings and absorbing life lessons.
Remember 25 years ago, when a leading fiscal goal of Newt’s Revolution was to eliminate federal funding for public television? It was judged too liberal, too outdated, too sedate, of too little value to justify taxpayer dollars. Yet, the proliferation of cable channels and now streaming services has not turned the television wasteland into wonderland insofar as quality programming for children. Thankfully, the light of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never went eternally dark.
There was an earlier threat turned aside. In 1969, Fred Rogers went before Congress in a last-ditch appeal for what seemed a hopeless cause – sustaining funding for public broadcasting. The video clip is priceless. The lamb went into the lion’s den and with his heartfelt innocence shamed and fleeced the political skeptics and cynics. His sincere demeanor and the empathy in his voice were proof positive that he reached kids and adults. It is a memorable, moving moment from the documentary chockful of them.
His fundamental purpose was to assure kids that they are special, in their individual personality and interests and ability. True to his message, Fred Rogers was special in countless ways. There was no need to embellish what he did to make him larger than life, no glaring faults or misdeeds to whitewash, no outfit of false humility cloaking an enlarged ego to strip away.
Another leader who made reticence his signature was Calvin Coolidge. His logic was unimpeachable: “You never have to explain what you never said.” Mister Rogers never needed to explain because his words were quite understandable and his actions were guileless. When he was talking to kids, dark clouds did not mar the blue skies of the hope and aspiration he tried to instill.
If we ever decide to take a break from yelling at one another, if we ever commit to listening to others with whom we disagree, if we ever take our hearts and minds out of the lockbox, this movie is a wonderful guide of how to gift ourselves with the joys of forgiveness and reunion.
As the abuse scandals engulfing major institutions and the horrendous child abuse statistics contained in annual reports demonstrate, we are not doing a good job of protecting kids physically. As allegedly responsible adults display appalling and reprehensible behavior, we are not protecting or guiding kids morally either.
Fred Rogers used the Neighborhood of Make Believe and its distinctive characters to connect with children and convey his message in a non-threatening way. Today, too many individuals in positions of responsibility create lands of verbal make believe to cover sordid deeds and soulless policies.
In a book, Fred Rogers imparted timeless wisdom about our real neighborhoods: “Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone.” Not just tolerating others. Not just benignly accepting someone. Reaching out and nourishing someone, extending the gifts of empathy and encouragement.
See the movie. Come away wishing our elected and appointed officials and community leaders could receive transfusions of the gentle spirit and caring and compassion and empathy of Fred Rogers. Maybe there is a collective New Year’s resolution to be found here. Remediating and reversing the rot eating away at the soul of America would make for a much better day in millions of America’s neighborhoods.
Yes, faith really is believing when common sense tells you not to.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.