Fred Rogers' Radical Empathy On Finding Fred
By Diana Brown
October 27, 2019
Bestselling author Carvell Wallace is worried about talking to his kids. How can he “explain why there are Nazis marching in...the farmer’s market?...Why they should be good people? How they should be good people in a world with so much bad, where they see people who look like them shot by police, murdered by vigilantes, run over at rallies?” he wonders. Everyone in the world seems to be so full of anger and violence, overflowing with emotions they don’t know how to deal with. Maybe that explains the sudden “explosion of Mr. Rogers nostalgia going around,” Carvell says. So he started Finding Fred, a ten-part series, to find out what exactly is attracting adults back to the "neighborhood," and how we can apply the emotional intelligence he was trying to teach us to our lives today. In this episode, he talks to fellow writer Ashley C. Ford, as well as New York Daily News TV critic David Bianculli, about the radical empathy of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers himself.
When Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered in 1968, “the world...felt probably a lot like the world does now. Scary, chaotic and unspeakably violent,” Carvell says, thanks to the Vietnam War, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil unrest, and divisive politics. “Anger and confusion hung over a lot of adults. Fred's revolutionary move was to recognize that their kids were probably feeling it, too.” He didn’t shy away from tough topics; in fact, the very first week of shows featured “the ruler of the make believe land...building a wall to keep out people and ideas that he didn't want in his kingdom,” David says. “Now that's creepy when you think about it in 2019.” After Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Fred wrote an episode overnight to address it, having his “Daniel Tiger” puppet ask outright what assassination meant. “Fred Rogers empathized with the kids who were feeling so scared and confused, so he talked right to those kids. Then he talked to their parents, too, about how to help the children,” Carvell says. David adds, “Can you imagine any children's television program that's on right now...addressing the emotional consequences of [a big news event]? It doesn't exist.”
And this was the empathy of Mr. Rogers that became so revolutionary: “Mr. Rogers made it seem so easy, so casual to know how you’re feeling, to be comfortable in your own skin. But it’s not easy. It takes work,” Carvell points out. “He was showing us how to do that work.” And it’s incredibly hard work, Ashley adds; “Getting people to understand empathy is so hard. This man was, I believe, a genius at it. Not just because of innate talent or inclination, but because he valued it and he committed to it and he worked really hard at it.” What Fred realized was that most of us aren’t very comfortable with our feelings, so we don’t try to understand where they’re coming from or work through them, making empathy for ourselves and others nearly impossible. During his famous appearance at a Senate committee hearing on behalf of PBS funding, Fred told the committee, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
Though Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood seems like a simple children’s show with puppets and songs, “Fred Rogers was not a simple man. Fred Rogers was a radical. In a sense, he was spiritual. He was revolutionary,” Carvell says. “How did this singular dude from an Appalachian town happen to develop some of the most spiritually sophisticated, substantial, maybe even essential television of all time?...How can Fred Rogers help us be better neighbors?” Listen to the episode for more musings on Fred Rogers’ genius of empathy, and the reasons his work still resonates, on Finding Fred.
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