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Mr. Rogers still teaches us the value of silence

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ever wish life came with a volume control button, or even a mute button?

We seem to value being loud these days. Just turn on the television, close your eyes, flip through the channels and listen to how many people are shouting rather than talking.

Loudness doesn’t even have to be limited to what we hear. It could also be information overload through social media like Facebook and Twitter.

But in the midst of the noise came a familiar, calming sound recently. My kids have discovered a program called “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” It’s based on characters (or more specifically, the children of characters) from the Land of Make Believe on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The (mostly) animated program attempts to carry on the spirit of Rogers’ classic television show, which ended in 2001, two years before Fred Rogers’ death.

In fact, the show uses the same opening and closing songs (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “It’s Such a Good Feeling”). If you are an adult who grew up watching the original program, it’s hard not to get a lump in your throat when you hear those songs again and think about the late, great Fred Rogers. It’s hard to believe our favorite neighbor has now been gone for 10 years.

Like any copy of an original, the spinoff can’t capture the same magic as the original program. I’m sure Mr. Rogers, who used to tell us that each of us are special in our own way and nobody is just like you or me, would want the show to have its own personality.

Watching the show with my children got me thinking about Mr. Rogers again. A few years ago, I read a book called “The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers.” What struck me most was the fact that Rogers wasn’t just putting on an act in the television show. That’s who he was. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister whose ministry was his television show.

I don’t think he ever mentioned Jesus on the air, but he didn’t have to. He led by example and embodied the commandment to “love your neighbor” perhaps better than anyone on television ever has. And even when he was around adults, he had a way of making them feel special, too.

How did he do it?

He didn’t do it by shouting, but rather with silence. When he would be invited to speak in public, Rogers would often ask the audience to take about 10 seconds of silence to think about someone who had loved and cared for them at some point in their life and helped them become the person they are today. If you want to watch the best awards ceremony acceptance speech ever, search for Mr. Rogers’ 1997 Daytime Emmy award speech on YouTube when he makes that request of the audience.

Over the years, when tragedy has struck, it seems we’ve often turned to the words of Mr. Rogers for comfort. I mentioned in an earlier column that many people found comfort in a story that Rogers once told of his mother telling him to “look for the helpers” in times of crisis. This advice brought many people comfort after events such as the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing when we were bombarded with violent and tragic images.

In the wake of the school shooting, it seems everyone had an opinion on what made 20-year-old Adam Lanza decide to go on such a horrific rampage. We heard arguments about access to assault rifles, mental health issues and the influence of violence in the media, including video games.

I don’t know if violent media played a role in Lanza’s horrible decision to kill 26 people last December. After all, many people watch violent movies or play violent video games and are perfectly well-adjusted.

But instead of being exposed to something harmful, could it have been more of a case of Lanza not being exposed to something healthy?

Another common theme of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was learning that it was OK to express your feelings. And if you felt angry, you could find a way to express that anger without hurting yourself or others.

I have wondered if Lanza ever watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Perhaps he would have taken the words to heart that he was special just the way he was, that he didn’t need to use violence to express his anger at the world, that it was OK to let other people know how he was feeling. Could it have made a difference? We’ll never know.

What I do know is that the lessons Mr. Rogers taught us as kids can speak to us even as adults, living in a world that seems to be constantly shouting at us.

If we can just turn down the volume and listen to the silence, we might find that it is in fact quite a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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