Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never connected with me when I was a boy. As a child born in the mid to late 1970s, I saw plenty of opportunity, as the show was regularly broadcast and Public Television was still a thing. I endured many an episode, quite simply, because it was what was on the airwaves at that moment (streaming on demand was still a couple of decades out — hard to imagine, I know). It has taken me well into the middle-aged milestone of my journey and Fred Rogers’ passing to appreciate how inspiring and visionary he was.
Fred Rogers’ hometown of Pittsburgh and the United States went through significant growing pains between the 1960s and the 1990s. The fabric behind the nation’s social and economic status quo was being stretched to its tearing point. Local industries were changing focus, and the residents’ livelihoods were consequently placed in tenuous situations. The kind of stress this type of pressure creates generally brings out behaviors that are not characteristic of our best selves. Poor behavior on a systemic level can slingshot a community, or nation for that matter, into a downward spiral of anger, pain, negativity, and increased poor behavior compounded over and over again upon itself.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a manifesto disguised as children’s programming with low-budget hand puppets, crafty set props, and live improvisational piano work. Fred Rogers created a counter-movement to the media-incensed ugliness and divisiveness that was becoming a common tactic to increase engagement for advertising dollars. He sought to rebuild broken communities by teaching universal love, respect, and self-value — not the ‘my way, right away’ or ‘I deserve this’ kind of self-value, but the concept that every soul is unique, inherently precious, and should be treated as such. The topics the show addressed were complex, timely, and relevant. Skills traditionally taught in the home were made accessible through this television program to youth that may not have had a traditional home to call home. A generation of children learned how to be better people and more socially adjusted human beings by watching the programming Fred Rogers created.
An interesting observation I have found with age and experience is that human nature remains constant over time. Material conveniences evolve, but our natural impulses do not. I would wager that any history student enjoys connecting past events with the present and speculating about the future based on past occurrences. Is Fred Rogers’ mission as relevant today as it was four decades ago?
Several months ago, I came across a reboot of the ‘Trolley Problem’ or the ‘Bystander at the Switch’ dilemma originally explored in a 1967 philosophy paper by Philippa Foot. An anonymous Reddit user posted a philosophical litmus test in 2020 (a test that uses a single indicator to prompt a decision) called the ‘Shopping Cart Theory.’ The post reads as follows:
The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore, the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it. No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct. A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with law and the force that stands behind it. The Shopping Cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society.
Mr. Rogers once stated, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.” Honesty, much like the Shopping Cart Theory scenario, is a choice. The liberty to choose what is best for oneself is a fundamental right. Mr. Rogers also stated, “There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.” A citizen’s ability to self-govern (without compulsion or force) is necessary for a free society and one of the noblest goals an individual can achieve. A well-adjusted adult understands that you are ultimately accountable for yourself and your decisions alone. In other words — you have the innate freedom to choose and accept the natural consequence of your choices. If honest reflections about your ‘shopping cart decisions’ make you uncomfortable, a new opportunity is presented.
Sometimes behavior patterns become sticky. Repetitive behaviors create plastic neural pathways (or habits), which form ways that ultimately manifest as addiction. You have options if you are ready to acknowledge a problem and want to make a change. More wisdom from Fred Rogers suggests, “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” Don’t be afraid of change — embrace it — so long as it leads to a more upright version of ‘you.’ Depending on your obstacles, various local resources and individuals can help you achieve your goal of a better self.
The rewards are abundant to you and those around you if you can:
1) Validate that you are precious and unique.
2) Strive to be honest with your true self and those around you.
3) Make good choices.
“If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is some of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
– Fred Rogers
When you go about your days voluntarily doing good — you will discover your genuine value and enrich the lives of those around you.
What determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society?
“It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.” – Fred Rogers
The downward spiral of negative thought and action can be reversed. All things have their opposite. Perhaps that downward spiral could be better described as a spiraling staircase that can be traveled in both directions. Daily gratitude, empathy, compassion, and patience could be likened to climbing the staircase. Choose wisely if you want to experience joy and make your community or home life a more “beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
“Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered,
as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.” – Fred Rogers
I am no ‘Fred Rogers,’ but I like who the guy was and what he represented to the society of my youth. Our problems today are eerily similar to many of the issues of the recent past. Real change begins at the local, even the home level. If we, as individuals, can embrace a more loving and positive outlook on everyone and everything, we can create the idyllic community that we all want Heber Valley to become.
Thank you for your ongoing support of Heber Valley Life magazine. I hope you find the stories to follow uplifting and that they help you visualize our community in the best way possible.