Fred Rogers created and hosted the wildly popular preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that ran from 1968 to 2001.
Mister Rogers received over 40 honorary degrees and several awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy.
But behind the personality that won the awards and degrees lies the man, and how he impacted people’s lives. Mister Rogers spread the message of using kindness and love to triumph over cynicism. His shows created wonderful childhood memories for millions. Many called him “the father they never had.” Fully grown men and women wanted to hug him and weep like children.
His work influenced many writers and producers of children’s television shows. Even after his death, his broadcasts serve as a source of comfort during tragic events. The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a heartwarming tribute to him.
But did all this come easily to Mister Rogers? Was he able to influence so many people because eternal optimism was his default behavior?
In a particular scene, a reporter asks his wife, Joann, how it feels to be married to a living saint.
“If we think of him as a saint, his way of being is unattainable,” Joann says. “He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger.”
Despite what we might assume, Mister Rogers didn’t have it easy. He was often parodied on television (and it’s tough to laugh at it after the hundredth time). His relationship with his sons remained strained for many years, to the extent that his elder son didn’t tell anyone about him.
He faced numerous other hardships, including being “deathly afraid” that television, the medium he chose to spread his messages, was ruining childhood and silence, the elements he strived to protect.
Nobody has it easy.
Although we assume that everyone except us, does. “Why me? Why not him?” We ask anyone who’ll listen. But life is the same for everyone, far too mysterious for you, me, or even Mister Rogers to decode.
What distinguishes one life from another is how each individual views what happens and how she responds… not just to life-changing events but to tiny everyday ones as well.
Do you react to events by letting the default mechanism kick in? Or do you choose how you respond to them?
Did you react to a setback yesterday with the default “I’m a loser” phrase? Or did you choose to use it as an opportunity to learn and try again today?
Do negative emotions have the freedom to break you, anger you, or make you feel victimized? Or do you choose to pick up the broken pieces, mend yourself, and become a stronger and more beautiful version of your wonderfully flawed self?
Do you binge on Netflix and Instagram to drown out your feelings and emotions? Or do you accept your emotions as gifts, examine and understand them, and see things more clearly as a result?
Taking the higher path didn’t come naturally to Mr. Rogers. He worked at it every day, right until the day he died. He did things to stay grounded. Like praying for people by name, reading scriptures, swimming laps, writing hundreds of letters, and, when he got angry, pounding the low keys of the piano over and over again.
Each day is filled with twenty-four hours of tiny battles. In Hindi, we have a saying that roughly translates to “Equanimity means being at war with oneself.”
What happens to you in this war doesn’t decide who you are. How you choose to respond, does. You can quickly wave the white flag when circumstances threaten to defeat you. Or you can wake up each morning, splash cold water on your face, and show up at the battlefield.
This isn’t easy.
In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin shares about a phase when he paired against Evan, a 200-pound, slightly out-of-control man when he was learning Tai Chi.
Week after week, Waitzkin got hammered by Evan. So much that the plaster of the walls started falling off. He limped home from practice, bruised, wondering what happened to his peaceful meditative haven.
He had two choices. To either give up and never work with Evan or to show up with a bruised body and ego at the school each week. Waitzkin chose the latter.
With time, he stopped fearing the impact. When he relaxed, his mind sped up and Evan’s actions seemed to slow down. Waitzkin got better at neutralizing Evan’s attacks and began to exploit his weaknesses.
Until one day, the tables turned. Waitzkin tossed Evan around effortlessly. From that day on, Evan never worked with him.
At the beginning of the fight against your default behavior, you’ll get hammered too. That’s when you have two choices.
You can mortgage your future for what’s easy in the present by avoiding the fight. Or you can show up day after day, bruised, battered, with a torn armor, and continue fighting. Until one day, winning feels easier.
But even when it gets easier, you cannot drop your guard. Each day, new situations will arise to test you and suck you into the black hole of your former self. Like Mister Rogers, you must keep working to stay away from the blackhole’s powerful gravity.
Life is a consequence of our actions in the present moment. Be the best version you can be today, and tomorrow will turn out fine.
Image source: JSTOR