Lately I have found myself asking the question: What unites us? Some of us in the Piqua community might respond with something along the lines of, “It’s our hatred of Troy that unites us.” But if that’s too brash, we might say something like, “It’s our Piqua Indians that unite us.” Simple enough. But as we get to the national level, it becomes harder to figure out what unites us nowadays. We are all Americans – that part is obvious. But all Americans have different political views and that just brings us back to square one. To try and get myself away from the negativity on the 24-hours news channels, I made it a priority to only watch the CBS Evening News on Fridays for Steve Hartman’s “On the Road” segments. You know, the feel-good stories that showcase the best of what America, and her people, have to offer.
But after a while, I found myself on YouTube watching segments of another show: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. This was a show that I remember watching as a young child, but I never really gave it much thought. However, now that I’m older, I look at segments from his show and begin to see that he was no ordinary individual. During the time he was alive, he was a forward-thinking Presbyterian minister who changed lives and gave hope to millions of children. Even though he is gone, he is still quite possibly a man that can unite us and can help us be better people.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of his show and, by possible coincidence, there are two movies that portray his life and work. One will be an upcoming movie starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and the other is a recently released documentary about the show and Fred himself, appropriately titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” After a month in theaters, that film is the highest grossing documentary of 2018. While it’s an incredibly inspiring film to behold, the comments and reviews I read for it were just as inspiring. Every single one that I read either talked about how much Fred changed their lives or how much joy he brought to their childhood. I could not find any comment or review that mentioned anything negative about him. Nothing mean-spirited, crude, or untrue. It seemed that the one thing we Americans could be united on is our perception of Mister Rogers.
But, of course, why wouldn’t we be? This was a man that embodied the best of what we can be. Here was a deeply Christian individual who never belittled anyone that thought differently or held different convictions than him. He exemplified the Golden Rule and lived by it. His famous invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” is a surprisingly challenging question for us to ask. In divisive times such as the Civil Rights movement, many people in the South said with regards to black Americans, “I don’t want them as my neighbor.” Meanwhile, Fred was on TV asking everyone, no matter their skin color, economic status, disability, or religion, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” How many of us would be willing to ask another person, no matter who they were, to be our neighbor? Not many of us. I know that even I would find that difficult.
Today, we see people like the Kardashians on TV and think to ourselves that that’s how we need to be; that we need to be beautiful and rich to be accepted by society. Fred, on the other hand, would tell you, “I like you just the way you are. You make every day special and you know how? By just your being you.” It’s powerful messages like that that we need to hear more of. Too often we are looking to politicians and TV personalities for guidance when they do not display the best of this country.
Fred was a person who undoubtedly displayed our country’s capability to be great. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, his message of kindness and respect is losing the battle. In these politically divisive times, we find it easy to shout and belittle others that think, act, or vote differently. We seem to think that what Fred taught us is too difficult in practice. But if he could do it, then what is our excuse? What can we possibly do? Well, as he once observed, “The greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”
Perhaps Mister Rogers will not be the final piece that will connect this country back to a united whole. However, if we all just try to be the best neighbors that he knew we could be, then this nation will surely be well on its way to becoming united and truly great again – one neighborhood at a time.
Nick Thompson is a resident of Piqua.