HUMANITIES

The Stoicism of Mr. Rogers

An Attempt at Examining the Human Condition Through the World and Work of Fred Rogers

Art courtesy of JoanLeMay

“Love is the root of everything. All learning. All parenting. All relationship. Love or the lack of it.”

Fred Rogers

The 1960s have always been a prominent decade in America. The country and its system have been challenged in a way that they have never been before. From the origins of the modern feminist movement to voting rights, gay rights, and the Civil Rights Act, as well as the cold war and a string of assassinations, these subsequent turns of events have spread both confusion (from the clash of political and social polarities) and fear among the people.

The influence of media, specifically television, has been a part of the development of these events. The broadcast of the attacks on Vietnamese people and the protests against them, as well as the multiple demonstrations for women’s, gay, and civil rights, have had people not only talk about them but also become involved with them in different ways. Everyone, including children, has been affected by the severity of these events. Fred Rogers, a devout educator for children, witnessed the depth of the children’s involvement and the impact of this involvement on them. This led him to create a program that would enlighten and uplift those children from the darkness where they were left unattended.

Fred has let magical realism serve realism first, then magic second, in children’s television programs by allowing children to understand the depth of an issue or topic in a way they will comprehend it without sacrificing the value and amount of its relevance. His discovery of television coincided with the birth of his concept of children’s programs. He wished to use the media as an effective tool for guiding children in their daily lives.

With regards to the assassinations broadcast on the news in the 1960s, Fred understands that not even the innocence of a child could save him from perceiving the reality of the world.

“I felt that I had to speak to the families of our country. A plea to not leave the children isolated and at the mercy of their own fantasies of loss and destruction. Children have very deep feelings just the way parents do, just the way everybody does. And our striving to understand those feelings and to better respond to them is what I feel is the most important task in the world.”

We are governed by our perceptions of the world and how we act upon what we perceive. Briefly, feelings play an important role in a man’s life. Fred understands that emotion (or the lack thereof) is powerful enough to make a man feel both extremes: power and vulnerability.

Mr. Rogers understands that children do not have to suffer from the dumbed-down presentation of reality, for they could understand it better if only adults would take time to explain it carefully. He believes that children are capable of comprehending complexity without resorting to reductionism.

Another example of this is his insistence on using complex jazz music in his program together with Jonathan Costa, which was thoroughly explained in this video by Charles Cornell.

Aside from helping children navigate their way through understanding life and their feelings, Mr. Rogers also taught them the act of goodness. He has done it by convincing children that they are innately good, as are all humans. Through this, Mr. Rogers subtly promotes peace by telling children that goodness exists in people and that it just takes good people to see it.

Much like the Stoics, Mr. Rogers believes that justice can only be achieved if someone judges people not from a higher pedestal but on the same ground. In one episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred invited Officer Clemmons, a police officer of African-American descent, to dip their feet in the swimming pool. Not only does he let him be in the same pool, but he also dries his feet. The significance of this scene would only be realized if one were acquainted with the racism of the 1960s, when white people demanded the segregation of facilities from African-Americans, from shops and stores to bathrooms and swimming pools.

Photo courtesy of NPR Illinois

Mr. Rogers taught us how important our feelings are. He emphasizes that we must deal with whatever we feel and try not to deny it to ourselves or to someone else. Through this, Mr. Rogers implies the principle of self-control. According to him, if only we had a better understanding of what we felt inside, we could make better judgments about the events that happened to us. To realize that these events are not the ones that dictate our way of living, but rather our judgment of these events, is to realize that our understanding of our mortality is what makes and pushes the world we live in.

Despite what has been said about Fred Rogers, one should be careful about considering him the epitome of being human or a saint, at least according to his wife Joanne. When asked about it, she said, “Fred has worked on the hard things of life,” and she argues that to be put on such a pedestal would mean one would have none of those things to deal with. Nevertheless, Mr. Rogers’ significance is already immortalized through his contribution to a better understanding of, and such care for the process of understanding, the human condition.

The Author: Much of the genesis of this essay was inspired by the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This particular scene broke me into tears as well as made me admire the writing of the film. Here is a brief analysis of the scene.

In a whole minute, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have enabled so much emotional depth in the narrative of this scene. Joanne’s cameo disguised as the locals hints at the event (a movement) that is about to happen. The silence only makes it more intimate, and we only realize that we are participating once Tom Hanks moves his gaze from Matthew Rhys (Lloyd Vogel) to the camera — to us, the audience — signaling the transcendence of the emotional entity that is moving beyond the screen, towards the unsuspecting participant. We are not only feeling for Lloyd Vogel anymore. We now feel for ourselves. This scene is an interpretation of Fred Rogers’ speech at the 1997 Emmy Awards.

Watch it A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

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