Who is My Neighbor?

I wrote a post for last week but it never felt right, so I’m trying again this week. The seed comes from a meditation a week or so ago, based on that day’s gospel – the rich man asking Jesus how he might enter the kingdom of God. You know the story. Jesus responds by saying, “You know the commandments, You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.’”

The commentary pointed out that Jesus’ reply doesn’t focus on the first three commandments about our relationship with God, but on those commandments that bind us in relationship with others, with our neighbor.

When I read the word neighbor, I immediately made a not-so-spiritual leap to a specific neighbor, a neighborhood filled with puppets, a museum-go-round, a trolley, and was once described by even one of its own inhabitants – David Newell, aka Mr. McFeely – “as well, geeky. ”

Thursdays are usually play days with one of my soon-to-be-four-year-old Grands – well, not last Thursday. Last week he really, really, REALLY wanted to stay home with his baby brother. But for the last year or so he’s been my Thursday buddy and no matter what else we might do, there’s always the  request, “Nana, can we watch Mr. Rogers?”

Each episode is only about 30 minutes; even limiting him to three episodes each week, we’ve spent a lot of time wandering around The Neighborhood. (I’ve not watched Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood but without the live Mr. Rogers, I know it’s not the same.)

I watch the show with my Grand, but I also love watching him . . . unless he’s taken up residence in my chair and moved me to the floor. It happens. When Fred Rogers opens his front door and invites his television neighbors in, my Grand stops merely watching a television show. He enters that living room with its picture-picture, fish tank, and closet full of colorful cardigans. We guess which color we think Mr. Rogers is going to wear that day.

So I wanted to write about Mr. Rogers, but what can be said about him that hasn’t already been written? There are studies showing his impact on children. I didn’t see Tom Hanks’ movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but from all accounts it depicts Fred Rogers’ true personality.

Maybe a study should be done on his impact on adults. After hours of visiting, I realize I enter that living room too. More than once when I’ve been put on hold or stuck in traffic I’ve found myself breaking into, “Let’s think of something to do while we’re waiting, while we’re waiting for something new to do. Let’s try to think up a song that’s liberating . . .” That’s as far as I need to sing in order to stop the eye roll, the deep sigh, the budding impatience.

I’ve been in that place he sings about, ‘so mad you could bite! When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong . . . and nothing you do seems very right?’ As an adult I’ve not actually bitten anyone, but I have had to clamp down on my tongue before biting off someone’s head with a cutting remark or a tirade. Mr. Rogers asks children if they pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up some friends for a game of tag? Or see how fast you can go? I can promise some of my weed-pulling isn’t just to clean up the garden.

Drawing children into his company was probably Mr. Rogers’ greatest gift. He always – always – talked straight into the camera. Often the shot is a close-up, making him appear as if sitting in the same room directly across from you.

I’m amazed at how he maintained that length of eye contact while looking at a camera lens. It can only be that he truly imagined a child sitting in front of him, and he’s talking only to him or her, and they are the most important person in the world at that moment. In that intimate connection there’s reassurance, comfort, and honesty.

I have a sense of how my Little Guy feels, because I know how that same gesture feels – from anyone – as an adult.

As we enter another week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s this urgency and deepening quest and prayer for peace. This past Saturday I read a meditation by Terence Hegarty in which he writes about praying for our enemies and how easy it is to see ‘enemy’ in those who want to break into our homes or in the brutal dictator of another country. But then he asks about those who simply annoy us – those who don’t use their blinkers or who allow their dogs to bark incessantly. He reminds us that no doubt we are ‘those people’ in some way to others.

In a rosary booklet written by Pope John Paul II, he distills the element of peace between neighbors – whether those neighbors are other countries, other groups, or other individuals. Ultimately the real essence of peace has to be found within ourselves, before we can begin to experience or extend it to others.

Since Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, I have to believe the idea and use of the word neighbor wasn’t an accident, he took it straight from the gospels. Like in the meditation from last week, the commandments listed are about how we behave, and that was the focus of all Mr. Rogers’ shows. He didn’t get into academics like ABCs and 1-2-3s; the building blocks he polished were the foundations of being a good person and a good neighbor.

As I write this I think about how movie houses used to show news reels before the feature film. In a slight twist, maybe we should all visit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood before or after we watch the nightly news.

My only complaint from visiting so much is now I can’t put on or take off my shoes without hearing, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, such a happy feeling you’re growing inside, and when you wake up ready to say, I think I’ll make a snappy new day.”

It’s a beautiful day in my neighborhood. I hope it’s one in your neighborhood too. And there’s an open invitation if you want to stop by and watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I’ll even sit on the floor so you can have my chair.

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