A plaque beside Mr. Fred Rogers’ office chair read: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” He talked about what is essential in a 1997 interview by Charlie Rose, and the YouTube video of it recently caught my attention. I watched because at RootsTech, LeVar Burton drew upon an experience he had with Mr. Rogers, and it created a palpable shift in the room’s energy, prickling the hair on my arms and making my eyes well with emotion. It felt like the sort of moment that can alter the course of human events. Even Burton seemed overwhelmed by what happened. Prior to that moment, he had been reserved with the media, perhaps a natural result of so many appearances at Star Trek conventions. Afterward, however, he granted unscheduled interviews and opened up in a way that one inside source told us was uncharacteristic. As in, he does not let his guard down in public.
The experience that precipitated it was this: years earlier Burton attended a White House event where Mr. Fred Rogers spoke to a high-powered guest list. Mr. Rogers asked everyone to close their eyes and think of the person who believed in them the most. Burton gave that same directive to RootsTech attendees, and a few thousand humans simultaneously conjured love and gratitude for someone who made the difference for them. When we all did, I am telling you it felt like some “freaky, old–timey, voodoo-style Big Magic” to steal a quote from author Elizabeth Gilbert. Others might call it the spirit and some people may define it more simply as the most powerful force of all: love. Regardless of the name, the feeling in that room had a profound effect on me and since that day, it led me to express more gratitude for those who have made the difference in my life, and also to call upon forces beyond myself in my work. Since making this shift, I’ve had some uncanny experiences in my work where I have felt help from forces beyond myself. (That’s a whole ‘nuther story, but I wrote about it here.)
With that backdrop, I felt like watching the Rose/Rogers interview was witnessing a spiritual master at work, a superhero whose power is humility. Mr. Rogers’ lack of ego is so profound, it makes everyone else grow bigger.
Although Charlie Rose is conducting the interview, Mr. Rogers reverses the roles and begins asking Rose poignant questions, “What is essential about you, Charlie?” Rose begins to answer and then laughs, “See what he’s doing? He is turning this around, isn’t he?” Even after acknowledging it, though, Rose candidly shares his desire to make a difference. Always the validator, Mr. Rogers agrees, “Have you ever known anybody who was really satisfied or happy who has never made a difference in somebody else’s life?”
In that exchange, I realized I was watching a master class on interviewing and when I hire interviewers in the future, I am totally using this video as a training tool. Here is Charlie, the professional who is well paid to put guests at ease and draw out the best from them, and to be fair, he does a nice job. Halfway in, however, he is still charmed by a genuine compliment that Mr. Rogers gives, “I talked to someone the other day who said, ‘I am addicted to Charlie Rose…I said, ‘I know him and he is one of the easiest people to talk with.'” Rose asked, “Did you say that?” Mr. Rogers replied, “I did say that.”
Mr. Rogers volleys important questions to Rose throughout like, “Do you get enough quiet?” When Rose admits he tries but often goes too fast, Mr. Rogers reassures him, “Well you are an enthusiastic man. That’s why people like to be around you…”
You can tell by watching this lovely conversation that these are not gimmicks Mr. Rogers used to win friends and influence people. Rather, it feels like without his own ego in the way, Mr. Rogers creates space for others to feel their own worth. Even when the spotlight shined on him in a TV interview, he conveys a quiet peace. He was the same man in all circumstances.
When pressed, Mr. Rogers did open up about how he kept himself grounded, “I get up every morning at least by 5, have a couple hours of quiet time to reflect about what is important…before I go swimming and then the business of the day.”
Then he asks Charlie a most remarkable question, “What can we do–those of us who are purveyors of this television medium–to encourage people to have more quiet in their lives? More silence? Real revelation comes through silence.”
It seems an impossible question, yet Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did exactly that. As competing programs garnered boisterous attention, Mr. Rogers remained a calming friend to children everywhere.
When asked how many children he thought he had influenced he said, “I don’t care how many, even if it’s just one. We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important.”
Rogers continues with the thought, “I know that when I walk out of the studio someday and there is a child who has Downs Syndrome, for instance, and that child comes up and gives me a hug, I know that that’s the field I want to be growing in. Because I see that people who are not the fancy people of this world are the ones who seem to nourish my soul. And I want to learn how to be the best receiver that I can ever be. Because I think graceful receiving is one of the most wonderful gifts we can give anybody.”
When asked what he learned from kids, Mr. Rogers said, “Practically everything. How to know that it’s all right to say what comes to your mind right away.” He continues the thought, “Jesus said to the people around him, ‘Please, let the little children come up here. I want to learn from them.’ He may not have said those words, but I think that’s what he meant. I want to be involved with these innocent people who make up the kingdom of heaven.”
When I started watching the video, I supposed I anticipated this kind of wisdom, but I did not see it coming when Mr. Rogers turned to some of life’s most troubling subjects: anger and suicide. He referenced a suicide by someone who seemed to have it all. Rose and Rogers wondered, “What was it that we didn’t know about our friend?” Mr. Rogers responds, “There are times that people just can’t share what is essential within them…We didn’t know what it was that was making her lonely.” He speculates that someday when we are in heaven we will learn.
When I watched this, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if everyone had a one-to-one relationship with a Mr. Rogers type of person? What if each of us could bring more validation to our friends? More quiet into our own lives? What we all felt more space to say what immediately comes to our mind and to share what is essential within us? What is making us lonely?
There are, of course, no easy answers to suicide, and too many “what if” questions after. Last winter a beautiful young mother I knew took her life, and I processed that heartbreak in an article entitled “If we make it through December.” I can only imagine how her grieving children must have needed a friend like Mr. Rogers to process such enormous feelings. Perhaps that is why it seemed timely to add Mr. Rogers’ voice to the conversation on suicide now.
In the interview, Mr. Rogers shared thoughts on anger too, and what he does when he feels angry, if one can imagine Mr. Rogers in that state. He read a letter by a boy and his advice to create a healthy outlet by playing the piano very loud and swimming fast. (I think I will try this!)
Understanding that children need to process difficult emotions, he aired a special show on PBS in the evening after John Lennon was shot. “There are people in the world that are so sick or so angry that they sometimes hurt other people…”
In the Rose interview, Mr. Rogers issues a challenge to all of us that still stands: “One of the things that our whole world needs to be able to work on more, are ways to deal with anger.”
You can watch the full interview on YouTube.
By Rhonda Lauritzen, Founder and Author at Evalogue.Life, where we tell Stories that Inspire. (Let us tell yours!)
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