–By Sam Hendrian–
It’s you I like/It’s not the things you wear/It’s not the way you do your hair/But it’s you I like.
These simple yet profound song lyrics help summarize the heroic mission of Fred Rogers, the legendary children’s television host who is profiled in the acclaimed 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A quiet man with a loud message about human dignity, Mr. Rogers was a veteran of what is perhaps the world’s longest-running armed conflict: The War Against Worrying.
We worry about so many soul-troubling questions throughout our lives. Do I amount to anything, or am I ultimately worthless? Can I be loved just the way that I am? Fred Rogers knew that no matter what our age, we can all be weighed down by these questions from time to time, and he made it his life’s mission to tell each of us that we have infinite worth and can indeed be loved just the way that we are. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gives insight into the various battles he had to bravely fight along the way to fulfilling this mission, as well as the biting doubts that he himself sometimes faced about his own worth and place in the world.
The documentary opens with Mr. Rogers sitting at the piano. He muses to the cameraman:
“It seems to me that there are different themes in life, and one of my main jobs, it seems to me, is to help, through the mass media for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”
It was this musing that ultimately led to the creation of the highly-successful Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a public television show in which Fred would use puppets, human characters, and his own amicable personality to walk children through both the joys and sorrows of life. Having received a Bachelor’s degree in music composition, he often wrote simple but catchy songs for the show that had social/emotional messages playfully weaved into them.
During one of the documentary’s most poignant scenes, we see a clip from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Daniel Tiger, Fred’s puppet alter ego, sings a song entitled “Am I a Mistake?” The opening lyrics are as follows:
Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake/I’m not like anyone else I know/When I’m asleep or even awake/Sometimes I get to dreaming that I’m just a fake/I’m not like anyone else.
Daniel Tiger’s heart-wrenching doubt over his self-worth mirrored the insecurities of Mr. Rogers himself. The documentary reveals that he sometimes seriously questioned his skills as a writer and feared that he may not be any good. But he knew deep down that it is in consoling that we are consoled, so he used his own self-doubt to help others who were struggling with the same demon. As the character of Lady Aberlin melodically responds to Daniel Tiger:
I think you are just fine as you are/I really must tell you/I do like the person that you are becoming/When you are sleeping/When you are waking/You are my friend/It’s really true/I like you.
Mr. Rogers desperately wanted people of all ages to know that they are not mistakes but rather can be loved just the way that they are. He heroically took his own inner worries and converted them into weapons of encouragement, successfully winning a crucial battle in The War Against Worrying.
Another compelling character trait of Mr. Rogers that the documentary addresses is how he was able to gently educate children about troubling topics like divorce and assassination. He knew that we perhaps worry the most about things we do not understand, and he strived to guide children away from the forests of confusion and into the fields of clarity. Of course, he could not change the ugliness of difficult subjects, but he could at least help children not feel so alone and confused by explaining these subjects in a not-so-frightening manner.
Sometimes, war heroes or bold people of any kind seem impossible to live up to. How can we ever be as brave as them? The terrific thing about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is that while it undeniably frames Mr. Rogers as a hero, it does not depict his heroism as unattainable. We each have unlimited potential to be kind, gentle, and loving to every person we encounter. The War Against Worrying may continue to rage within our souls, but if we use our worries as a catalyst to empathize with others, we can ultimately be triumphant. And finally, we can convey to every person in our lives the essential truth of these timeless song lyrics:
It’s you I like/Every part of you/Your skin/Your eyes/Your feelings/Whether old or new/I hope that you remember even when you’re feeling blue/That it’s you I like/It’s you yourself/It’s you/It’s you I like.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.