I grew up in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in the early 70’s at a time when cable television was nonexistent and the best children’s shows were found on PBS. Like most children of my generation the two premiere shows were Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. My grandmother always enjoyed my imitation of Mr. Rogers. I would take my shoes off and put on sneakers as well as a cardigan sweater just like he did at the beginning of his show. Mr. Rogers was a strong influence in my life as a young boy. As an adult, I moved to Greensburg Pennsylvania, a city just outside of Latrobe, the home town of Mr. Rogers. I also attended St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe which is the home of the Fred Rogers Center. It seems Mr. Rogers always found a way to press himself into my life. That’s why I had to read the book The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth when it showed up on my Kindle recommendations.
There are so many wonderful things to take from the book. I think anyone reading it will find Mr. Rogers was probably more of a spiritual master than some of the ancient sages we hold in such high regard. I love that the author presents key points from the life of Mr. Rogers that highlight the way his Christian faith informed everything he did both on and off the television set. I want to touch on one of these points because it speaks volumes about how human living can be so simple yet powerful. I want to talk about being authentically yourself. In the book Mr. Rogers is quoted as giving the following response to a child that asked him if he liked being famous:
“I don’t think of myself as somebody who’s famous. I’m just a neighbor who comes and visits children; I happen to be on television. But I’ve always been myself. I never took a course in acting. I just figured that the best gift you could offer anybody is your honest self, and that’s what I’ve done for lots of years. And thanks for accepting me exactly as I am.”
Think about that for a moment. The best gift you could offer anybody is your honest self. In this simple response Mr. Rogers echoes the great spiritual truth that much of the work done through spiritual practices is simply an attempt to rediscover our “honest self.” We spend so much time developing our social selves (A social psychology term meant to describe the fact we’re constantly presenting an image that meets the contextual social expectations) we tend to lose touch with our honest self. This means every time we engage in relationships the “Me” we share with other people isn’t a true “Me” but one we’ve learned to display so we’re liked, accepted, etc. Mr. Rogers found a way to be comfortable sharing his honest self; a self that was comfortable being vulnerable to others scrutiny because he was loved by something greater than social acceptance, he was love by God. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from Mr. Rogers. Perhaps we can learn to be our “honest self” again, just as we were when we were children. In that way, the person we share with others in the relationships we establish isn’t some cheap knock off but a real person that will love and accept others for who they are just as we will be accepted for who we are.
They say imitation is the greatest form of a compliment you can give someone. Maybe I need to be just like that little boy I was in the 70’s but instead of merely imitating the external trapping of being Mr. Rogers (i.e. the sweater and the shoes) I could adopt the simple practice he demonstrated his whole life of being his honest self. Maybe we can all just stop for a moment and instead of seeing Mr. Rogers as merely a children’s show that lacked the technological advancements of today’s productions and recognize it for what it is; a lesson in the great spiritual truths that make living life well a matter of simple profound spiritual truths like living authentically, finding sacred space in the relationships we establish, and loving sacrificially and unconditionally in the most vulnerable ways. Thank you, Amy Hollingsworth, for a great book and thank you Mr. Rogers for walking in the way of the great spiritual masters by just being your “honest self.”