Monday, February 3, 2020


I was more of a Sesame Street dad than a Mr. Rogers dad when my kids were growing up. In other words, I was a head guy rather than a heart guy. I responded to the energy of Sesame Street, its emphasis on teaching the ABCs and math, its jumpy, colorful aesthetics. I was, I'll admit it, somewhat scornful of slow old Mr. Rogers with his cardigan and his puppets--and not least what I judged to be his sentimental preachiness about "feelings."

These memories were prompted as I watched "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" last night, with the amiable Tom Hanks...

... doing an excellent job of impersonating the former minister whose children's television show I was happy, in those days, to mock. I have been through a good number of life changes since that time. Perhaps the most important--and the most difficult!--was the one that taught me that to live cut off from those feelings that I mocked was to cut off not only from myself, but from the true relationships that make life meaningful.

Attentive readers of these Buddha Diaries will have noted the blog's epigraph: "... getting to the heart of the matter..." I could have learned a lot from watching Mr. Rogers, had he been around--had television been around!--when I was little. Instead I learned that feelings were dangerous things: at boarding school you didn't cry. To show fear or sadness was to invite bullying or mockery. It was safer to hide the feelings that came up, to build a strong suit of armor to protect my vulnerable inner heart from the world out there. By the time I was a young man, it would embarrass me to even hear the word "heart." That was silly stuff, for people less enlightened than my well-educated, supercilious self.

Watching the film last night was in some ways a painful experience, in part because it put me in touch with that younger self, and with the ABCs of emotional education of which I had been deprived by a bygone ethos as a child. There was no kindly Mr. Rogers to reassure that little boy that he was okay exactly as he was; no one to listen to the fear and rage I felt so frequently and so intensely, but kept inside because it was unsafe to express them.

More disturbing even, though, was the film's major theme, which came as a surprise. Before seeing it (Ellie's insistence) I had expected something softer, gentler, more, well... Mr. Rogers. And that part was there, for sure, as the counterpoint. But the major theme was something closer to my own heart. (See, I can say the word now!) It was the unacknowledged rage of a young man carrying the childhood wound of having been abandoned by his father at an early age, and their long and difficult path toward reconciliation and the rediscovery of love between them--through the agency, of course, of Fred Rogers.

It took me a long time to grow into full manhood. Along the way, in my emotional immaturity and much like that young man's father, I caused great pain to those who loved and ought to have been able to trust me. Watching the film, I could not help but see myself in the object of that young man's rage, a man who could find no way to make amends for the actions of his own young days; and I was truly, unexpectedly moved as I witnessed the learning process of both father and son as Mr. Rogers helped them find and heal their damaged hearts.

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