A particularly memorable moment in my travels with the message of Fred Rogers came a few years ago in a junior high school gym in Tampa, Florida. That afternoon, I shared with six hundred students how, after meeting Mister Rogers in the mid-1990s,the great man mentored and loved me through a very, very difficult time in my life. They were right with me, those kids. In my experience, young people love it when adults admit to going through hard times.
But I most vividly remember what happened at the end of my talk, when I said I had a confession to make. I sensed the kids leaning forward in the bleachers.
“I’m a mess,” I said. “Maybe not quite as much of a mess as I was twenty years ago, but still a mess.”
My young audience erupted.
“But wait a minute,” I said when the noise died down. “I’ve got news for you. You are a mess, too, every last one of you.”
The second eruption was louder than the first.
“There is another word for mess,” I said. “It’s human. And the good news is that we don’t have to be messes alone.”
The kids absolutely took the roof off the place.
They were responding to a supremely important part of Mister Rogers’ message. Though he never used the word mess, so far as I know, Fred taught that we all have hidden struggles and in fact, those burdens are what we have most in common.
But most of us live as if the opposite was true. We go through life believing in our “terminal uniqueness,” that we are the only ones feeling anger, sadness, shame, grief, fear, depression and self-doubt. Feelings are character defects, not inevitable and universal aspects of the human condition.
Sadness, anger, shame, etc. are painful enough, but we greatly compound our misery judging our feelings and thus ourselves. Out in the world we isolate ourselves, pretending to feel better than we do, learning from an early age to fake it, loathe to share our pain and vulnerabilities. Feelings get turned destructively inward or come out sideways in very unfortunate ways.
This is one of the great tragedies of our species. And so unnecessary. The truth is that pain and suffering can sanctify. I was struck by the following passage in a recent essay by Pico Iyer, an author and long-time friend of the Dalai Lama.
“…holiness and humanness may be more closely entwined than we imagine,” Iyer wrote in the New York Times. “Speaking to the Dalai Lama for 44 years now, I’m often most touched when he stresses how mortal he is, sometimes impatient, sometimes grieving, just like all the rest of us. I keep returning to the novels of Graham Greene because he reminds us that a ‘whisky priest’ can get drunk, neglect every duty, even father a child, yet still rise to a level of kindness and selflessness that a pious cardinal might envy. It’s in our vulnerability, Greene knew, that our strength truly lies (if only because our capacity to feel for everyone else lies there, too).”
One of the great gifts of my middle age has been an increasing willingness to accept and even embrace the messy parts of my being. Among my teachers in this regard, of course, was Fred Rogers. No person in our age has done more to coax us out from our existential hiding, to teach us the sacred if often painful truth of our insides.
In fact, I think Fred’s most important teaching concerns feelings: That they are neither good nor bad, and their origins are beyond our ability to know. They just are. All we can do is accept them, feel them, express them in ways that don’t hurt ourselves or others and share them with those we trust.
It was no coincidence that in Fred’s iconic appearance before a Senate committee in 1968, a turning point in his testimony came when he shared the lyrics of one of his songs: What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel: When You Feel So Mad You Can Bite?
And just few days ago, I came across another one of his songs, thanks to my friend Rick Lee James and his Twitter site, @MisterRogersSay. The title is Truth Will Make Me Free.
What if I were very, very sad
And all I did was smile?
I wonder after a while
What might become of my sadness?
What if I were very, very angry,
And all I did was sit
And never think about it?
What might become of my anger?
Where would they go, and what would they do
If I couldn't let them out?
Maybe I'd fall, maybe get sick
But what if I could know the truth
And say just how I feel?
I think I'd learn a lot that's real
I'm learning to sing a sad song when I'm sad.
I'm learning to say I'm angry when I'm very mad.
I'm learning to shout,
I'm getting it out,
I'm happy, learning
Exactly how I feel inside of me
I'm learning to know the truth
I'm learning to tell the truth
Discovering truth will make me free.