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Mr. Rogers Wasn’t a Saint, He Was One of Us

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Last week, a friend and I went to see Last Christmas. It was sold out, which turned out to be a stroke of holiday good luck.

We saw the Mister Rogers biopic instead, and I think it made us kinder.

The filmmakers had recreated the show’s details perfectly. The busy piano theme that accompanies the trolley. The way Mr. Rogers changed shoes while he sang. The unexplained traffic light in his living room.

The nostalgic effect was intense. Apparently I hadn’t seen much of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was its intended audience—a sensitive five-year-old, sitting cross-legged on our brown living room rug, bewildered by feelings.

At the time, I believed Mr. Rogers was an extremely kind man who talked directly to me and wanted me to be okay. Today, I think that’s exactly what he was trying to be, and what he was. By all accounts of those who knew Fred Rogers, he was really that kind.

The movie left us both wanting to be more like him, even by a little. By the time we left the parking lot we’d made a plan: a mutual commitment to practice metta, a Buddhist kindness practice we’re both familiar with, every day for the rest of 2019.

The practice involves thinking of people you know, and silently expressing well-wishes to them. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering. These phrases aren’t said with the belief that they’ll magically protect or assist their target. Their purpose is to generate a state of deep caring and concern, making it more familiar and available to you in daily life.

It sounds lovey-dovey but it’s very practical. You’re simply strengthening one of your many emotional capacities by exercising it on purpose.

Kindness changes what interests the mind

It’s only Day 8 now, but we’re both noticing a difference in how we feel.

My practice sessions usually generate a significant feeling of warmth towards others. This warmth doesn’t stay prominent throughout the day, but it does seem to lie closer to the surface, and emerges more often.

One-on-one interactions, even transactional ones, feel like they matter more. Moments at grocery tills and coffee counters unfold less by rote and more by feel, as though each one is a unique event.

Experiences among crowds—driving, grocery shopping, queuing in a shop, having lunch at a restaurant—feel more collaborative and less competitive. Even passing strangers on the sidewalk comes with a bit of an “us” feeling.

None of this is too surprising. But I’m also noticing differences in areas I don’t think of when I think of kindness.

I write more neatly. I move less abruptly. I place, rather than toss, my laundry in the machine. Listening effectively—following an anecdote or explanation, even on a Youtube video—seems easier.

These little changes feel intuitive and effortless. I’m not trying to be kinder to my laundry. My body just wants to move more gently. I’m not listening better because it’s a kinder thing to do. I’m just more interested in understanding.

Something you feel, not something you do

I’ve always thought of kindness as a sort of moral category of behavior. You can do kind things or unkind things, and you should try to do kind things.

But now—and this may come off as slightly crackpot—I’m thinking kindness is more like an innate human sense, which can be developed with practice. Maybe there’s some late-evolving background process in the brain, that understands how our words and movements collide with human feelings, and which shows up in consciousness as an intuition for protecting human well-beingregardless of whose it is.

When you’re guided through a moment by this sense, the eyes naturally soften, the heart naturally opens, and your movement becomes gentle and nonthreatening.

After all, it doesn’t seem to matter who I direct my morning well-wishes to, the practice awakens the same healthy inclinations towards everyone. As I generate more warmth, kind and gentle patterns emerge in my mind and body. As the warmth wanes, the carelessness returns.

This “kindness sense” would be just one of many types of intuition that evolved to help humans survive. But wouldn’t it be an especially useful one for such a helplessly social creature, whose personal well-being depended on the well-being of its community?

We would all have this capacity, to some degree. However, someone who’s spent a lifetime developing it, someone who exudes warmth in every movement, would strike us as almost otherworldly in their kindness.

It would be extremely moving to know or meet such a person. Or even see them on TV. We’d continue to be moved even after they’ve passed on, because they’re still making the rest of us kinder.

Yet they were never more than a regular person—just unusually well-attuned to one particular human quality we’ve all known and felt.

Joanne Rogers has said she doesn’t like it when people refer to her husband as a saint, because that makes his level of kindness seem unattainable.

“People invariably say, ‘Well, I can’t do that, but I sure do admire him. I would love to do it.’ Well, you can do it.”

***

Coming Soon: Relaxation Lessons

Over the summer, I built something new: a simple course to help people relax.

I held a private pilot group in the fall to get feedback, and people found it really helpful. I’m about to open it to the public.

It’s centered around learning one easy, portable mindfulness technique, designed to settle you into your body wherever you are. Lessons are delivered mostly through audio. Plug in, press play, and I’ll guide you.

We’ll be starting in January 2020. More details to come. Sign up below to get all the info.

[Keep me posted!]

***

Image by Vidar Northli-Mathisen

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Hazel December 5, 2019 at 2:17 am

I think you’re right, that this is an innate quality in us, which can just get buried under our conditioned responses. I feel though that it’s not just “an intuition for protecting human well-being”, but for protecting the well-being of everything, including animals, and laundry ;-)

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:00 am

I think you’re right about that… Human well-being is too specific. Mr Rogers was a vegetarian, and we all saw how kindly he treated his jackets and sweaters.

Vanessa December 5, 2019 at 2:34 am

Living in Seoul, I often see Buddhist monks walking past on the street or riding the bus, and it is an amazing feeling, a kind of awe and respect at the quiet and gentle atmosphere they carry with them. I’m really thankful each time, because their attitude is infectious, I’m reminded that I can be like that too

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:08 am

Buddhist monks really do exude kindness. Something in our system can feel it. When I was on silent retreat at Cloud Mountain they said a monk would be visiting the facility at some point during the week. One afternoon I was sitting on the porch and heard people come up the ramp behind me, and knew it was him. It must be something about how they move, or maybe some less tangible quality they broadcast. It makes me feel like we’re all in a china shop and need to move consciously so we don’t break anything, and I think human feelings are delicate like that.

Elisa December 5, 2019 at 5:17 am

For me, so much easier to practice kindness towards others than to myself a lot of the time. When the gremlin is growling in my head, listing my failures, inconsistencies, confusions, etc., (“You should be on top of this stuff by now!” for example), I have found that softening towards myself, warming towards myself, being kinder towards myself, muzzles the gremlin completely for a while. Walking out of the Mr. Rogers movie, I thought, “I ought to view myself as Mr. Rogers would view me more often.”

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:13 am

Same here, and I wonder if we all might be like that. There are things I say to myself that are just plain mean. I’m learning to practice self-compassion, to soften towards myself like that. It is really helpful, and the fact that it feels so unfamiliar says a lot.

Nicholas December 5, 2019 at 5:57 am

A good post about caring.
Taking the Buddhist metta one step further, we Christians pray to God for those in need, knowing that our good God looks kindly on our prayer and provides his grace, blessing and support to those in need. Such prayer not only helps the recipient, but also the one who prays, increasing a spirit of kindness and centeredness on others rather than self. And in the end, it reminds us in humility that while we are all called to make a difference in the world, in the end it is God’s goodness that makes it so.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:16 am

Thanks Nicholas. For all of our conventional cynicism about human beings and the trouble we create, we do have this spirit of kindness available to us, and it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world to express.

Jared December 5, 2019 at 6:21 am

I really enjoyed this post, David. My wife and I saw the movie and I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. Additionally I was raised in Pittsburgh. I called my mom to ask her about me watching the show and she said she always preferred that I watch Mr. Rogers instead of Sesame Street as the latter wound me up while the former kept me calm. How long is your kindness-producing practice?

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:22 am

Sesame Street was definitely a different kind of show. A lot more stimulating than Mr. Rogers’ gentle household. Characters like Cookie Monster wouldn’t really fit in there. As I understand it, Mr. Rogers was pivotal in securing funding for public broadcasting, which paved the way for Sesame Street and other programs.

There’s an amazing clip of him winning over a skeptical senator with kindness: https://youtu.be/fKy7ljRr0AA

Michael December 5, 2019 at 10:30 am

The practice of metta seems to awaken a sense of caring, and with the feeling of care general rather than specific — an attitude of caring (or taking care) with respect to the outside world in all its aspects. It seems like a cousin to what I think of as mindfulness — being focused on and aware of the experience of the moment — but with a warmer attitude: not just awareness of the present moment and what it contains but also caring for those. Extremely interesting column, and I’m going to give it a try.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:50 am

Metta practice is usually done alongside mindfulness practice, and overlaps it in a way, but they’re different. In mindfulness, you’re attending to present moment experience as it already is, with as much openness as possible. Metta uses a kind of active thinking in order to cultivate a certain emotional relationship towards others. You then practice mindfulness of that emotional experience. It grows stronger the longer you do it, and makes it easier to contact in daily life.

John Khalil December 5, 2019 at 10:36 am

“Yet they were never more than a regular person—just unusually well-attuned to one particular human quality we’ve all known and felt.”

YUP.

Guessing you already read this gem of an article(?): https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/mister-rogers-beautiful-day-neighborhood-movie

Also, was chatting with a girl I know from Pittsburgh and she shared this with me: https://twitter.com/johnxkhalil/status/1199213302024462336?s=20

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 10:57 am

Hi John. I hadn’t read it, but thank you. I don’t think I even knew he was from Pittsburgh until I saw the movie and the camera panned over a model city, which was recognizable from its hills and bridges. Love the anecdote about the business community. I guess a person that kind makes impressions that last for decades.

John Khalil December 5, 2019 at 12:05 pm

I’m not one to ever go to the movies, but that article was so impressive, I went to a 11:00 PM showing that same evening—I was the only one in the theater.

Anne Helen Petersen is one of my favorite writers, so I wasn’t surprised by another banger she put out.

Thank you for responding.

Leisureguy December 5, 2019 at 12:45 pm

Twitter link is broken, but I’m interested in seeing it. The article by Anne Helen Petersen was well worth reading. Thanks.

John Khalil December 5, 2019 at 12:50 pm

Glad you enjoyed. The Twitter link works for me and David. Give it another try(?).
https://twitter.com/johnxkhalil/status/1199213302024462336?s=20

Margaret December 5, 2019 at 11:02 am

I love and share these sentiments (and practices); thank you for capturing them so well. It’s similar to how I feel about historic figures like Jesus, who, in my book, was likely just a really magnificently kind mortal human. To deify him (or Mr. Rogers) is to take him out of the realm of “one of us” and put them on a level we feel we can’t aspire to. I don’t want to go to a mega-building and sing songs and worship Mr. Rogers either…I just want to be more like him for all of my days. Thanks, David.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 4:00 pm

That would be my guess about Jesus too. A transcendentally kind mortal human, whose way of being impacted people deeply and still does. Mr. Rogers can still be known as he was through video, so the deification can’t get too out of hand. But Mrs Rogers still has to bring people down to earth when they talk about him as a saint.

Segun Babalola December 28, 2019 at 10:51 pm

I thought you might like to read this

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma

Something to mull over…

David Lent December 5, 2019 at 11:38 am

Thank you David for another provocative, inspiring, and gentle story.

Many years ago I read an interview with Fred Rogers about the origin of his technique for speaking to a camera. Just out of college, he had been the floor manager on the Gabby Hayes Show (my favorite; before your time). One afternoon, just after the show had wrapped, Fred approached Gabby, saying: “Mr. Hayes, how is it that you make me feel like you’re talking just to me?”
“Well, Freddie, I imagine I’m talking to just one whippersnapper out there.” (“Whippersnapper” and “Buckaroo” were Gabby’s terms for us, his viewers).
After reading this, whenever I had an opportunity to speak to a camera, I visualized my daughter in the lens. The technique was gold; I began speaking more slowly, softly, and kindly. And being in the news business has allowed me to share this story with reporters, public servants, and business people who, like me before reading Fred’s inteview, felt awkward speaking to a camera.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 4:10 pm

Thanks for this David. I’m always uncomfortable on camera because I see it as the whole world scrutinizing me. To think of it as just one person would really help. I’ve also been given the advise (and rarely remember it) to write as though I’m writing to just one person. That sure would simplify things, because I’m often overwhelmed by imagining too many different reactions to what I’m saying. I should tattoo it on my hand.

Paul December 5, 2019 at 12:02 pm

Good post. RE: the Fred Rogers YouTube clip — Yes, sixty-nine thousand ‘thumbs up’, and yet there were also four hundred, ninety-seven ‘thumbs down’. I have to wonder who those four hundred, ninety-seven ‘thumbs down’ people are. How do they think, which drives their actions, especially towards other people? If there was/is a need for Buddhistic, compassionate regard, Christian prayer, or any other good (dare I say ‘holy’?) modality, it would certainly be for those four hundred, ninety-seven. Well, you do the math (I’m not so good at), i.e., the percentage comparison of 69,000 as to 497. I’m sure that will alleviate some notion of despair with regard to this ailing world; instill some feelings that, as Louis Armstrong sang: It’s [still] a Wonderful World.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 4:13 pm

Well youtube will be youtube. There will always be downvotes on every single clip and I wouldn’t read too much into it. People downvote things they don’t even watch.

Lloyd Hansen December 5, 2019 at 12:44 pm

Thank you for this post. Another perspective is being vs. doing. We live in such a doing culture that our default mode is to see our doing as that which defines us and who we are in the world. It is our being, who we deeply are, that determines how we live. I have always liked the analogy of a tree. When we think of a tree, the image that arises is of the trunk and branches and leaves; but without a healthy root system that provides for the growth and nourishment, the visible parts of the tree can never thrive to their fullest potential. It is our inner work and development that allows our outer doing.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 4:32 pm

Thanks Lloyd, I appreciate this analogy. Our world is very much focused on the fruits of everything, which are just a reflection of all the unseen parts of the system, all the way into the ground and back in time. Not enough credit is given to the root system.

Samantha Holmgren December 5, 2019 at 12:59 pm

I feel calm just reading your post! :) I love the idea of kindness as a sense and relating it more to intuition than a behaviour or decision to be made. Definitely food for thought.

David Cain December 5, 2019 at 4:46 pm

:)

Aurolyn Luykx December 5, 2019 at 5:15 pm

If you liked the Tom Hanks movie, you really need to see the actual documentary about Fred Rogers.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7681902/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

David Cain December 6, 2019 at 12:47 pm

Looking forward to seeing that one

Chestine December 5, 2019 at 9:41 pm

The Dalai Lama exudes this kind of kindness. One of his associates came to our little town and gave a workshop. As soon as i got near him, i could feel that same sense of kindness so present. Your post is a wonderful reminder to recall how that felt and to practice it.

David Cain December 6, 2019 at 12:48 pm

I’ve heard many anecdotes about the palpable kindness of the Dalai Lama. It suggests that there really is more going on with kindness than just behavior.

Peter Burton December 12, 2019 at 7:40 am

It is about practising an attitude that expresses itself in ways we speak and behave, firstly towards ourselves then outwards from there. Habit forming. That’s why James Clear’s work is so important by reinforcing that we have the power to choose what habits will serve life as it expresses itself through each of us.

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