By Michael Leppert
With all the noisy exclamations and chest-thumping in our culture today, it’s hard to imagine a man like Fred Rogers would even get noticed. Think about it for a moment. Who else today has a brand built on kindness and silence?
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, comes to mind.
Joanne Rogers only had one request before the most recent movie was made about her late husband though, as reported by Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times: that the filmmakers “not treat her husband as a saint.” Technically, Mister Rogers was not a saint, though he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. That said, I can’t think of anyone more saintly.
Kindness is easy to explain. Spiritually healthy people are usually kind–it is sort of part of the package. But silence? Purposeful silence is difficult.
For example, convincing you to stop reading this column for an entire minute, sit silently in gratitude, and then come back to finish it would be unlikely. Don’t accuse me of not knowing my readers. My columns are classified as “four-minute reads,” which makes them already too long in most circles today. Adding 25 percent more time to this lengthy exercise might damage my already modest ratings.
Silence is powerful in so many ways. Rogers knew how to convince people to embrace a silent minute as well as anyone. But the quiet around him was more than his “silent minute” exercise. It was more an aura of deliberate thoughtfulness with hypnotic strength.
Last holiday season, I was stricken by the documentary of Mr. Rogers’ life, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” I really only watched it because I thought I should, not because I actually wanted to. The movie experience was as profound as any I can remember. So much so, my wife and I were initially hesitant to even go see this year’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Even with it starring Tom Hanks, in his latest role that will certainly land him his sixth Academy Award nomination.
We were worried that dramatizing the iconic man was risky. And it was a little. But the latest movie tells a tale of why Rogers was so important in terms that should make sense to people who may not have grown up with him. The new movie details the relationship that was formed when Esquire magazine reporter Tom Junod was assigned the task of writing a simple profile of Mr. Rogers in a “hero” edition in 1998. At the time, Junod was angrily struggling with some familial challenges that are not particularly out of the ordinary.
Diffusing Junod’s anger, and Rogers’ fascination with whatever was causing it was the point of the story. And that is what fascinates me about Rogers. He focused most of his teaching toward children, and the seemingly unlimited temper tantrum our culture seems stuck in right now has me viewing much of America as the kind of angry young child that could use a guiding light.
For me, the most powerful scene of the entire movie was when Rogers asks Junod to share a minute of silence with him at a lunch spot in his hometown of Pittsburgh. It seemed as though every other person in the cafe knew that it was time for a silent minute and every person in the place joined. In his portrayal, Hanks stared down the camera with his version of a neighborly gentle smile, as if to invite everyone in the theater to join the restaurant’s patrons in what became a deafening silence. The time was to be spent by Junod remembering all of the people who had helped him become the person he was that day.
I won’t forget it.
Our collective instincts seem to be driving our communication to a loud, confrontational style these days. Whether it is yelling over one another on a news station panel or the mic drop endings of so many public speaking events, it seems that there is little space for a commitment to a quietly kind approach to living. That style is labeled too passive or even weak and is certainly not often seen for the strength it actually embodies. Never have we needed that style to begin trending more than we need it today.
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a show that was on television when almost nothing else was. I have thought about it more in the last year than I did in my previous 50. On this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I cannot think of a better way to spend a silent minute. Can you?
FOOTNOTE: Michael Leppert is a public and governmental affairs consultant in Indianapolis and writes his thoughts about politics, government and anything else that strikes him at MichaelLeppert.com.