When I was an adolescent, our girl’s group made a large batch of cards for the residents of a nursing home. “YOU ARE LOVED,” we spelled out over and over again, switching to scented markers when we got bored. We added a few stickers, then we threw all the cards in a bag to be delivered, and we got back to our real lives.
I felt obscurely ashamed and angry at the disingenuousness of this exercise, thinking how little it would mean to some ailing old woman to get a card from a girl she never met. Or, I thought, maybe it would mean a lot, and that would be even worse. “You [whoever you are] ought to feel loved [passive voice] by someone who couldn’t even be bothered to sign her name, because she has field hockey now [smiling sun sticker].” How worthless. Worse than no card at all.
But it never occurred to me to fix it by being sincere — by actually showing actual love to actual people, spending time with a lonely stranger. I didn’t want to do that, either. So I scrapped the whole thing.
I felt something of the same angry distaste when I was little and would occasionally watch Mr. Rogers at my grandparents’ house. My sister and I thought he was unbearably goony (and it didn’t help that I was secretly terrified of Lady Elaine). When his show came on, we would elaborately die of boredom, rolling our eyes so hard, we could see the inside of our snarky little skulls.
But I also didn’t like how he was always talking directly to me. You don’t know me! You’re just on TV! You don’t even know if I’m watching or not, so why are you pretending you care about me? I pretended to be bored, but I was also truly angry.
There was something more, though. I couldn’t deal with his face. I just didn’t want to look at it. He had that smile of extreme simplicity that you see in people who have gone through tremendous sorrows, or in the mentally impaired at Mass. It’s a radical openness, a lantern that burns too bright.
Looking at his face now, fifty years after his first show aired, I think that I was very wrong about this man’s sincerity. So many people have reported that, as children, no one else was telling them that they mattered, that they were lovable, that someone cared — no one but Mr. Rogers. His steady gaze and his warm voice were the only steadiness and warmth they had.
And he wasn’t only leveling them through the camera. Mr. Rogers was remembered by François Clemmons on StoryCorps a few years ago. (The very short StoryCorps features on National Public Radio are almost always worth a listen — sort of the audio equivalent of Humans of New York.) In this edition, Clemmons tells how Fred Rogers invited him to come play a policeman on his show.
“I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
But he agreed; and one show in particular stands out in his mind. It was 1969.
Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day.
“He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
Shades of Holy Thursday.
Fred Rogers clearly saw his career as an opportunity to invite, to serve, and to model charity. When he dried Clemmons’ feet, he wasn’t only doing it for the cameras — although that in itself was a momentous statement in 1969. He wasn’t merely modeling charity; he was being charitable, personally, to the actual person beside him.
Rogers didn’t hide behind the TV screen and consider that he had discharged his duty by broadcasting his message to the millions of people who watched his show. Talking to a crowd was not a substitute for talking to the man in front of him. Writers and social media warriors, take heed: There is no substitute for the personal.
[Clemmons] says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped, he walked over.
Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?”
“Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. “But you heard me today.”
Okay, so, that sounds familiar. Doesn’t it? Who talks that way? You know who. That’s why I still find it hard to look Fred Rogers in the face. But I am trying.
“He’s out there now as somebody who’s somehow way above all the rest of us,” she said. “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. I’m convinced there are lots of Fred Rogerses out there.”
And that is holiness. The steadfast resolve to respond with love to the person right in front of you — that’s holiness, and it’s achievable. That’s how you turn a generic and useless “you are loved” into a personal and transformative “I love you.” It may not be sainthood, but it is holiness all the same.