We live in a time where everything and everyone around us seems to be clamoring for our attention. From our Facebook feeds to our television sets, from our childhood classmates to the chattering classes, we’re surrounded by arguments and counterarguments. The declarations wash over us like relentless crashing waves, and it feels like a storm is brewing just over the horizon that’s pushing those waves to even greater and more threatening heights.
What’s missing? Listening. Nobody is listening. Nobody is slowing down, taking a breath, being present and just listening.
The simple, powerful, self-sacrificial act of giving someone the humble gift of your whole presence. Looking deeply at a person, seeing them for who they are, and offering them your full, undivided attention.
The first time Fred McFeely Rogers watched television, he recognized that gap. He saw the potential for television to do something other than assault our senses and pummel us into submissive consumers. He saw the potential for television to create a space celebrating the worth and potential of the viewers.
“I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen,” he later said in an interview.
Create a new type of television aimed at children that didn’t try to sell them anything other than the idea that they are special? Only a crazy person would decide to tilt at this particular windmill. As it turns out, Fred Rogers had just the right kind of moxie for that mission. Here’s how:
Moxie is often born of childhood experiences.
Rogers was born and raised in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a small town tucked into the edge of the Allegheny mountains just 40 miles southeast of Pittsburg. He was surrounded by a loving family, and his neighborhood later inspired he neighborhood he would create for millions of television viewers.
But young Fred’s life wasn’t perfect. He was overweight, and like a lot of children in the heavily industrialized region he struggled with asthma that kept him indoors much of the time. He was sensitive, and many of the loving adults in his life counseled him to push those feelings away. Pretend you don’t care, said the adults, and others won’t bother you.
But one adult listened, and cared, and made young Fred feel special. His maternal grandfather – his namesake, Fred McFeely – spent a lot of time with his grandson, and in the way that only a grandfather has the power to do, he made Fred feel special, heard, seen, acknowledged, and loved.
With the loving guidance of his grandfather, Fred grew into a confident, capable and talented young man. But he never forgot what it felt like as a child to need that reassurance and affirmation from a grown up.
People with moxie internalize their experiences in a way that serves others.
Rogers’ experiences with his grandfather helped him to fully embrace himself just as he was created to be, and made him passionate about helping others to do the same. Rather than harden in response to the world around him, he set out to soften the world around him, to shape his neighborhood into one of love and grace.
Moxie is patient, moxie is kind.
It’s easy to think of moxie as boastful and proud. It’s easy to think of gentleness and kindness as weakness. Rogers proved that entirely wrong.
As a devout Christian, Rogers was a living, breathing illustration of 1 Corinthians 13. In that passage, the apostle Paul describes the greatest, most powerful spiritual gift bestowed upon a follower of Christ – love.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” Paul wrote.
Paul was trying to teach the early church that it wouldn’t be flashy teachers or courageous leaders that would change the world, it would be simple, self-sacrificial love.
Rogers grasped that on a fundamental level. By all accounts, he was completely consistent on set and off. Who you saw on television was exactly the same man who loved his wife at home and raised two sons with her.
“Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in this world,” said Rogers.
I have the very strong sense that if Rogers had worked on a factory floor or sold cars for a living or whatever, he’d have been the exact same person. And while his reach and influence might have been different, he still would have changed the world, or at least the corner of it he inhabited.
People with moxie minister wherever they are called.
Some are surprised to learn that Rogers went to seminary and was an ordained Presbyterian minister.
He’d already begun working in television, first on commercial television, then later on public television, and had found his way into children’s programming. While he was working as a puppeteer on the show The Children’s Corner on WQED in Pittsburgh, he studied at Pittsburg Theological Seminary.
After earning his degree, he didn’t leave the world of television for a more traditional role in the pulpit. His specific calling was to children’s ministry through the medium of television.
“I’ll never forget the sense of wholeness I felt when I finally realized what in fact I really was: not just a writer or a language buff or a student of human development or a telecommunicator, but I was someone who could use every talent that had ever been given to me in the service of children and their families,” said Rogers.
His pulpit became larger and had more impact that any megachurch. After years learning his craft and developing his show, Rogers launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968. It continued through 2001. At its peak in the mid-eighties, eight percent of US households tuned into the show.
It might have been tempting to look to the traditional route of local church ministry as a way of living out his sense of purpose and calling. It took moxie for Fred Rogers to live out his calling to love and serve children in such a radically different way.
Fred Rogers has been gone from us since he succumbed to cancer in 2003, but his is far from forgotten. A documentary about his life was recently released to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, and a biopic starring Tom Hanks is also in the works. It seems the world is yearning for more of his presence, now more than ever.
How did the gentle, fierce moxie of Fred Rogers touch your life?