Over the weekend I saw Mr. Rogers and I, like the protagonist, was taken back to my childhood. I grew up in Pittsburgh and WQED was in my backyard. As an elementary school child I loved Mr. Rogers. He helped take me away from the harsh reality of my father’s suicide and let me dream of places far away and told me my feelings were ok.
I was a very awkward 4th grader with long black hair, oversized body (think Lane Bryant,) and the billowing height of 5’1”. While taller than all my classmates at the time, that alas, was the end of my growth. Period!
You can imagine my joy when Mr. Rogers invited me to be a Peacock his show. I was enrolled in Children’s Theater and drama was my middle name. The mere idea of strutting across a stage (me – ugly, fat, no good manners, me!) was music to my being. Multicolored feathers dripped behind me and a cap of feathers sat on my head as I waddled my body across the state. Mr. Rogers said, “Louise Ann that was wonderful.” No one ever said I was wonderful. I wanted to move in his house where all things were put away and there was an order to all things.
As a young college student at the University of Pittsburgh, I swam daily at Trees Pool, running down the hill to the Cathedral of Learning with my hair soaking wet so as not to miss my Australian Mellon professors pencil whip whatever I wrote. Little did I know that Mr. Rogers swam daily.
All I knew of him was what I remembered as a child and how I loved consistency of his responses. There was comfort in knowing Mr. Rogers would wear a cardigan, slip into tennis shoes, and that he believed we could weather our feelings, even in an alcoholic home like mine.
After seeing the movie, I was jolted into revisiting (as a woman of a certain age often does) just how profound Mr. Rogers was then and remains today. He was part therapist, preacher, teacher and the make-believe father I never had – always consistent, always present, always truthful and forever accepting of difference.
After talking with Mr. Wadas and my good friend, fellow interventionist, recovery coach, writer and actor Shayne Anderson, I offer the following words of wisdom that we as human beings and as behavioral health care addiction, mental health and trauma specialists can live by:
1. Start Each Day With A Belief in a Higher Power. Ask for Blessings and Give Blessings. Every morning and every evening Mr. Rogers prayed. He also meditated. Personally, I find that starting off each day with AA’s third step, prayer, writing a gratitude list and meditating strengthens my day. Spirituality is a keystone.
2. No Feeling is too big or too small to think about. In fact, talking about one’s feelings is a key ingredient to growth. Art, music and play also convey how we feel.
3. No Problem is too big or small to talk about. Being able to discern intensity is helpful. ASK Is it a Big Problem or is it a Little Problem?
“Some days, doing ‘the best we can’ may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect on any front-and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.”
4. Play Mirrors our Feelings. Sometimes we can’t put words to our experiences, yet we can use play or music to express how we feel. As a puppeteer, Mr. Rogers was adept at showing his feelings and getting others to show theirs. His use of stuffed animals is similar to inner child work that an experiential therapist will use. No matter what age you are, having a stuffed animal that soothes your inner child is a gift.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
5. Being present is the key to relationships and worth more than any material gift. Perhaps Fred (we are now on a first name basis) had a photographic memory. What he shows us is the importance of being present. When you are with someone, being with them is all that matters. You cannot do two things at once, as it detracts from being present, from connection. He had a way of acknowledging another person albiet child or adult like none other. He always thanked you for being present and invited you to share more. He was never shaming, always curious and humble. There was no cell phone distraction, no onset distraction, and when you were with him there was no one else.
6. Problems are Natural – Not Everything Can Be Solved. We can talk about them:
“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”
7. Ask for Help: Fred showed us that some things are just impossible to do alone, like putting a tent together. For him, learning how to ask and accept help is part of the human connection.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
7. People Make Mistakes and it’s not the end of the world. In recovery and in treatment one learns to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly about themselves. In life we all make mistakes and with patience we learn that it is not the end of the world, rather it’s the beginning of a new way of being.
8. Acceptance of who we are and our differences. Fred said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are.
9. Forgiveness is the key to acceptance.
“Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.” In 12 step work, during the 4th step, we learn to make amends to those we have harmed. Most importantly, we learn through therapy and 12 step work to forgive ourselves.
10. Our Imagination is limitless – like Napoleon O Hill, Fred believed that “anything the mind can believe it can achieve.” Once we are able to work through whatever our past is and who we are or are not the possibilities of who we are our endless. That is in essence of existence.
11. The value of Human connection – “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
12. Fred knew there was “no life that was entirely free of pain.” He invited all of us to close our eyes and think for a few minutes of all the people who have been important to us and taught us things. In doing so we learn to practice acceptance and forgiveness, to thank outside the box and thank our alcoholic father or mother or someone that was not nice and those that were most gracious because for Fred there ultimately was goodness in all of us.