Updated: Mar 24
This article is about the healing presence (powers?) of Mr. Fred Rogers, and how it parallels that of successful psychotherapy. You remember Mister Rogers, right? Or, maybe you never saw the classic TV show, but you recently saw the film starring Tom Hanks.
Mr. Rogers whole thing was to help children learn positive ways to deal with their feelings. Who know how much of an impact it would have on adults as well? By the way, a simple, yet amazing lesson of his, for kids: "Anything That Is Mention-able, Is Manageable."
Speaking of neighborhoods, do you know what Anne Lamott meant when she said "the mind is a dangerous neighborhood, I try not to go there alone."? Let's come back to this in a moment...
If you haven't seen the movie already, it's called, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and you can now watch it on Netflix for free. It's based on the legendary TV show featuring the gentle Mr. Rogers, who was the kind neighbor every kid wanted to have. Can you believe there were 31 seasons of this classic? Impressive.
You'll likely get much more out of watching the show, or the film, than you will this silly little article. However, by continuing to read here, you'll learn, or be reminded of, the most important themes and values from the movie, and the man. Not the least of which is how deeply powerful your loving presence really is for the people in your world.
I remember watching Mr. Roger's Neighborhood when I was a kid. I don't know if it's because my memory sucks, but I can't really articulate the impact that it did (or didn't) have on me back then. I don't ever remember thinking 'that was awesome!', or 'I really want to watch Mr. Rogers today,' or even: 'this is what I learned today.' That said, I do know that I watched it a lot. Maybe that's ok, not remembering... perhaps he was just planting seeds that later grew into who I am today...
From a movie making (and acting) perspective, one thing I loved about the film was if you, the viewer, were not yet familiar with Mr. Rogers, or needed reacquainting, you didn't need to be critical, or skeptical of him during the film, because Lloyd, the main character with the anger issues and cynicism of the world, did that for you. As a viewer, you could feel yourself relaxing and easing into the natural effects that the compassion and kindness (of Mr. Rogers) had on people, even the most pessimistic.
As a therapist, one reason the film captured me in the way that it did, was because the healing power of therapy was being played out on the screen. Psychotherapy is most healing when the client feels emotionally safe, in the presence of another, to be who they really are (not who they think they should be), feel safe to feel what they really feel, and learn to befriend the parts of themselves they'd prefer to ignore. I think many therapists would love to find (and maintain) that unconditional positive regard that Mr. Rogers held for Lloyd in their very first meeting, and beyond. His genuine concern and pleasure in knowing Lloyd wasn't phony or exaggerated. Nor was his intention to understand Lloyd beyond a surface level. I wonder what it would feel like to be that undefended when interacting with others, even strangers. Probably, pretty fucking liberating. One can sense Lloyd's guard begin to drop, just a bit, when Mr. Rogers engaged with him in such a fearless and loving way. As Tara Brach says, this 'Love in Action' is in all of us, but it takes training to bring it out of us.'
In their subsequent interactions, the authentic presence, attention, and genuine intent of Mr. Rogers to truly see Lloyd, could be felt through the screen. Lloyd wanted to find some dirt on Mr. Rogers. Lloyd wanted to not like him. Lloyd wanted to find a different side of him, a side not so wholesome, so that the article he was writing about Mr. Rogers would be more of an 'expose' than a 'puff piece.' Lloyd's comfort zone was to be guarded, keep his wall up, and his skepticism and anger alive. When Lloyd begins to feel, and notice, his usual defenses dissolving in the loving presence of Mr. Rogers, he does want many clients do. He resists. At one point storming out of the room when difficult emotions became too uncomfortable, and vulnerability becomes too much. Just like a client who doesn't return, it was easier, and safer, to be with the misery he knows, as opposed to feeling the (healing) discomfort that is unfamiliar.
Some memorable Mr. Rogers quotes:
"To forgive is a decision we make to release angry feelings we have for a person. It's strange but sometimes, forgiving the ones we love is the hardest"
"You're not broken Lloyd."
"There's always something you can do with the mad you feel. You can punch a pillow, or swim your fastest, or pound the lowest keys on a piano."
"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.'”
"The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile."
"People have said, “Don’t cry” to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.”I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.”
"I like you just the way you are."
As Rumi said, '“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. And embrace them." It's this last part of the quote, embracing, that often gets left out. And, it's actually what Mr. Rogers suggests Lloyd can do, by taking his anger towards his father, and shifting how he relates to that anger. It's exactly because of his father's poor choices that steered Lloyd to become 'the man of conviction who knows the difference between right and wrong.' In other words, it's not what happens to us, its how we relate to what happens to us.
3 quick examples of Rumi's barriers (to being more like Mr. Rogers). One, is to be lost in thought. This is not to say thoughts are bad, but how can we truly be present, truly listen to someone, when we are planning our response to what they are saying, or thinking about how we are coming across to this person.
Another barrier is that familiar judgmental voice of being superior or inferior. When I'm engaged with another, do I have a feeling, in my heart of hearts, that I'm superior to this person? Or inferior? When we are identified with this judgmental voice, is it possible to feel real love? With judgment, our hearts are armored.
Another barrier is having an agenda. Is there a motive, ulterior or otherwise, that I'm seeking when I'm engaged with this person? Tara Brach says, to the degree that the other person is an object of wanting (we want them to give us something, eg. their approval or their attention), we really can't see their wholeness, or relate to them from our wholeness.
Back to the film. Ultimately, compassion won. Mr. Rogers was able to create and hold a safe space for Lloyd to soften into his mess, and let it do whatever it needed to do. When someone holds safe space like that for another (as is the intention in therapy), it's amazing what can transpire, and transform. Watching Lloyd's comfortable angry exterior melt into an uncertain and tender appreciation for himself and his others, is to be witness to the power of being vulnerable in the presence of another, and shifting from resistance toward acceptance.
Remember the question above about not going into the neighborhood of the mind alone? I think that means if we are going to navigate the crazy and sometime scary emotional terrain of our mind and emotions (or someone else's mind), if we don't do it with an attitude of tender curiosity, compassion, and acceptance, we will get beaten down, or lost, or whatever else happens in bad neighborhoods.
I think all of us, especially therapists, could learn a lot from Fred Rogers. Tara Brach talks about how radical love cuts through the delusion of separateness. It is the bridge to connection. That's really what he practiced, isn't it? Radical love. In maybe the most poignant moment of the film, Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd to 'take one minute to bring to mind all the people who have loved you into being.'
I have a hunch the message I may have internalized from Mister Rogers Neighborhood when I was young was something simple like 'feelings need to be felt,' or, 'it's cool to be kind,' or 'it's ok to be me.' To be honest, as I write this, I realize that perhaps a quote I mentioned earlier in this article is what resonated the deepest. Despite it's significance to the profession I chose, as I reflect on what it truly means (besides being a great lesson for kids, and some adults), I do recognize the deep truth in the words: 'Anything that is mention-able, is manageable.' If we can talk about it, we can deal with it, together. In fact, I think that may be the essence of every healthy relationship I have.
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