Mister Rogers And The Dark Abyss Of The Adult Soul

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about how startling it is to be brought back to an open-heartedness that most of us spend our lives unlearning.

A friend of mine once told me about what happens on his meditation retreats, where attendees stay silent and engaged in some form of meditation for days on end. At some point, usually a day or so in, most attendees find themselves weeping. Not because they’re suddenly enlightened, but because the experience of spending so much time in an unmediated encounter with one’s self, with no distractions, is terrifyingly intense.

I’ve heard of similar reactions from long-distance runners, and long-term yoga practitioners, both of which make the body unignorable, the mind inescapable. We say we go on runs or meditate to “get out of our heads,” but the real effect is to actually burrow deep inside them, to concentrate wholly on the self. For many of us, that experience is so rare that tears are the natural, involuntary result — like seeing a good friend, long neglected, after so many years.

Something very similar happens to me, and many other adults, when we watch movies about Mister Rogers. Last year, there was the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor; now there’s the narrative film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller and inspired by Tom Junod’s Esquire profile of Fred Rogers published in 1998. The documentary featured interviews with Rogers’ colleagues and contemporaries, interspersed with footage of the original show. But A Beautiful Day follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a jaded, workaholic journalist assigned to profile Rogers, who is convincingly embodied by Tom Hanks. Lloyd’s interactions with Rogers are all buttressed by the breaking down of his own life: When his long-estranged father (Chris Cooper) shows up at his sister’s wedding, they get into a fistfight; Lloyd, who’s also a new father, and dealing with/diligently ignoring his own relationship to fatherhood, shows up for his first interview with a black eye.

Lloyd, loosely based on Junod, considers himself an investigative journalist and has developed a reputation as a writer with contempt for humanity: None of the other subjects for Esquire’s Hero Issue would agree to let him profile them. When he’s first assigned the story, and through his first meeting with Rogers, he’s most interested in figuring out who the “real” Rogers is — and how much the guy onscreen is an act and a lie. Rogers of course convinces him otherwise, simply by, well, being Mister Rogers. He spends time with Lloyd. He asks him questions, and then more questions, and waits through silences when Lloyd can’t answer them. He’s patient, and kind, and authentically caring. At first, Lloyd finds the process, and Rogers himself, infuriating — and deeply discombobulating, especially amid the wreckage of his own family. But then, very gradually, Rogers’ presence begins to transform him.

Rogers dedicated his life and decades of programming to helping children actually feel their feelings. Wallow in them, express them, process them. And adulthood, for most of us, is about acquiring the skills to feel no feelings at all. Feelings are distracting, inefficient, unoptimizable, unprofessional — childlike. They interfere with our capacity to work. In fact, some of us use work, especially if we’re “good” at it, to avoid our feelings. Like doctors, or social workers, or anyone else who works in a field landmined with intense emotions, journalists bifurcate themselves in order to survive: There’s the reporting self, tasked with documenting the world, no matter how devastating, which is walled off from the feeling self. It’s a coping mechanism, a survival strategy, but with time (and without therapy) that distanced posture just becomes the posture.

I’ve cultivated that distance while reporting on mass shooting survivors, and women who’d left a polygamous sect, and Syrian refugees attempting to rebuild their lives. It’s there when I listen attentively to people at political rallies who tell me that feminists and journalists are trash, or open my inbox to death threats. It’s how you can spot me and other journalists as we stand at a demonstration, or a rally, or a church service: blending in, but always slightly apart, with analytical distance. When you do feel some inconvenient emotion creeping in, you head it off by doing more work, more writing, more analysis: breaking it down, flattening it on the page.

In A Beautiful Day, when Lloyd finds himself out of control, beholden to his fear and sadness, he flees to go to work. You can tell it’s a strategy that’s worked for him for years. But this time, his work means talking to Mister Rogers.

You could say I identified with Lloyd because he’s a journalist, but I think I mostly identified with him because he’s an adult human in a society where we’re told, from a young age, that the best way to fix something is to work harder. We swallow existential questions, and the despair or wonder that blooms from them, and work. Fear of losing a job, fear of losing a parent, fear of being a bad parent — instead of sitting with those feelings, again, we work. Because work means money, and money brings a modicum of stability, and relief, however temporary, from that same fear. Work doesn’t actually give us peace or solve our problems. But for a lot of us, it’s what we’re good at and what we know, which is far more comforting than staring at the abyss of what we don’t.

What Rogers does to Lloyd — and what this movie did to me — is eliminate that escape route. He asks questions about Lloyd’s childhood, and asks them again until he answers. At one point, while trying, with great difficulty, to talk about Lloyd’s father and the anger Lloyd feels toward him, Rogers does something he was famous for: He stops the conversation and asks Lloyd to spend a full minute thinking of all the people responsible for “loving him into being.” In a different sort of movie, the audience would be privy to Lloyd’s thoughts via a tear-jerking, sepia-toned flashback. Instead, the camera sits with Rogers and Lloyd for that full minute. In movie time, it feels like an eternity. Which is part of the point: We’re so unaccustomed to taking one full minute of time to be with ourselves, for ourselves only.

At the end of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the audience is explicitly asked to try this exercise. At that point in the documentary I had already been crying for a solid half hour, so it just made me cry harder. This time, watching A Beautiful Day, I had somehow steeled myself — maybe because I was sitting in the theater with a notebook on my lap, studiously taking notes. Working, yet again, instead of feeling.

But then Tracy Chapman’s song “The Promise” starts playing. It’s a categorically sad song, but it’s also one that, for me, leads into a labyrinth of memories, freighted with emotion so thick I struggle to articulate it, all of it stemming from my early high school years. Sometimes that teenage self feels like an entirely different person: a person who felt, well, everything, in stark contrast to my analytical adult self. But sometimes, like in that moment, I’m enveloped by her.

It’s moments like these — as the poet Seamus Heaney writes in “Postscript” — “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” That’s what Mister Rogers, in documentary or reenactment, does to adults: He brings us back to the openheartedness of childhood, when we lacked the skill to deflect, or compartmentalize, or resort to work. The experience of returning to that self, like the experience of a multiday meditation retreat, is at once startling and deeply sad. Who have I become if that self feels like a stranger?

Throughout the beginning of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Lloyd is convinced that there’s a divide between the public, sainted persona of Mister Rogers, the television character, and the private, imperfect, real-life person of Fred Rogers. What he discovers is the same thing that has sanctified Rogers in the American imaginary: There is no public and private, no performance. His “persona” was so effective, and resonated so deeply, because it was simply who he was.

At one point, Lloyd asks Rogers’ wife, Joanne, what it feels like to be married to a saint — a characterization she immediately rejects. “If you think of him as a saint,” she says, “his way of being is unattainable.” But it is nonetheless a practice: a decision, made every day, to care deeply about others, but also to refuse to insulate himself from the emotions that care requires.

“To die is human,” Rogers tells Lloyd’s family as they studiously avoid talking about his father’s imminent death. “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” So many of us spend years studiously managing our feelings by ignoring their existence altogether. What Rogers insists, in words and by example, is that the best sort of life is the one where those feelings are recognized as a worthy, inextricable, and essential part of us every damn day — not just when we watch a movie about him. ●

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