Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood and the gifts of grace
The initial inspiration for the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers, was Tom Junod’s article Can You Say … Hero?, which appeared in Esquire magazine in November 1998.
Writing in the November 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Junod says the movie “seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved.”
Although Webster’s defines grace as “unmerited divine assistance given man for his regeneration or sanctification” and Funk and Wagnells says it’s “The unmerited but freely given love and favour of God toward man,” the term “unmerited” in these definitions seems to clang discordantly with other spiritual perspectives, e.g. Matthew 10:30, which tells us our “worth” is such that “even the hairs [on our heads] have all been counted.” I’d suggest these definitions would be better without the word “unmerited,” which can be read to imply a certain diminishment that runs counter to the sense of beneficence and the extraordinary that often accompanies an experience of grace.
The American mystic David Spangler says that grace “may indeed flow to us in response to our worthiness, but we can’t make grace happen. It is a true gift. What is wonderful to me is that we, also, can be ‘graceful.’ We can give the gift of who we are back to God; in other words, we, too, can bestow grace, which in a way is an attribute of the unconditionality of love: I love God not for what God can do for me, but because I am love and God is love and grace flows naturally to each other without being a requirement or a condition.”
In his 1978 bestseller The Road Less Traveled, Dr. M. Scott Peck writes: “let us redefine serendipity not as a gift itself but as a learned capacity to recognize and utilize the gifts of grace which are given to us from beyond the realm of our conscious will. With this capacity, we will find that our journey of spiritual growth is guided by the invisible hand and unimaginable wisdom of God with infinitely greater accuracy than that of which our unaided conscious will is capable.”
In a recent online article, Why We Turn to Mr. Rogers, Shea Tuttle emphasizes our worth and inherent value. While she refers to Mr. Rogers as “Our Patron Saint of Kindness” and notes that he is currently being celebrated for this quality in article after article, she points out that he “didn’t talk much about kindness, even though he was modelling it constantly.” The message he stressed, she writes, is: “You are lovable. He didn’t usually say it quite like that. Instead, he said: ‘I like you just the way you are,’ or ‘There’s only one person in the world like you,’ or ‘You’ve made this day a special day for me by just your being you.’ And he sang it, too. ‘You are my friends; you are special’ and ‘It’s you I like,’ and ‘I like you as you are.’ ”
Mr. Rogers, we are told in another article, “had to work at being good.” I’m pretty sure his service to others was motivated by a belief that they were deserving, and that he was, too.
Tuttle’s article comes to a couple of important conclusions. First, “We are not afraid we will not be kind. … We are afraid — desperately afraid — that we are not lovable.” Second, Mr. Rogers spoke “the truest truth. You are lovable.”
In her TED Talk, Becoming a Blessing, author and educator Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen proclaims that we all have the capacity to bless. Mr. Rogers certainly brought an attitude of blessing and affirmation to what he did. And in doing this, in bestowing acceptance and connection, he was dispensing and continues to dispense, 16 years after his death, grace to the deserving.