Last night, I finally saw A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood, a film based on a true story, about a cynical and emotionally wounded journalist who was changed by an assignment to write a piece for Esquire about Mister Rogers.
I hadn’t rushed to see it in the theaters, even though I am a huge fan of Fred Rogers’ humanitarian work. In the trailers, it seemed Like Tom Hanks was doing a kind of Forrest Gump take on Rogers. But I was completely wrong.
This film is powerful from the first few minutes. I do think the movie has flaws, in particular the score, which gets in the way more than it supports the storytelling. But the movie does many things brilliantly, and it packs an emotional wallop.
The magic of this film starts with its daring to move at the pace of Fred Rogers. Fred didn’t allow the constraints of his schedule to distract him from what was most important to him—making a heart-to-heart connection with human beings.
As we move deeper into the sacred world of Fred Rogers, we soon see that no emotion is too small to be acknowledged. Whether woefully delaying production to connect with a young boy visiting the set, or taking his time with Lloyd, the ill-tempered journalist, Fred ignores social constraints, daring to speak to our buried pain and shared humanity.
In mirroring his pace, we are given the opportunity to slow down, dropping into a kind of heightened presence, where deeper feeling rises to the surface.
Empathy of this kind is radical. It is disarming.
Several times, I found myself holding my breath, as tears welled up in the simple presence of his kindness. Empathy of this kind is radical. It is disarming.
Hanks does a remarkable job of making the essence of Fred Rogers palpable. Fred leads with soulful compassion at every moment. The soul’s pace is slow. The film slows to a crawl, where the soul can be revealed.
There is one stunning scene in particular where Mister Rogers is sitting in a restaurant with Lloyd, and asks if he is willing to do an exercise. For one minute, he is invited to sit in silence, and bring to mind every person whose love shaped the person he is today. The film literally goes silent for one minute. Slowly, the whole restaurant becomes silent, a sacred oasis.
I found that in that silence I couldn’t help doing the exercise myself.
I thought of Mary, our housekeeper, whose arms provided shelter and safety when I was scared… Mrs. Onken, my loving first grade teacher, whom I continued to visit well into high school… My older sister Linda, who sang poignant songs to me at my bedside at night, giving me much-needed permission to cry and release pieces of my pent-up pain. On and on, the names and faces came to mind during that single minute.
I woke up this morning full of gratitude, thinking about Fred Rogers, and how he embodied the qualities of soul I teach in my workshops: Sweet sadness, tenderness, passion and compassion, courage, trust, gentleness and quiet joy.
He gave a generation of children an experience of love and empathy.
It had never fully occurred to me the ways in which Fred Rogers was a living touchstone of the soul, in a world that was losing touch with that deep, feminine power. He gave a generation of children an experience of love and empathy.
I wondered how Fred would respond to our world today. I feel certain he would continue to model these beautiful qualities; weeping for the pain and separation, and continuing to bring tenderness and compassion to everyone he touches. I have to believe he did what he came to do, and the seeds he sowed in some way prepared so many of us to meet these troubling times with an open heart.
This is how I aspire to walk in the world. Fred inspires me to find deeper compassion and patience, to be gentle and tender, with myself as well as others, and to be courageous in protecting our humanity from the forces that would rip us apart.
I thought about all the violent films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year, films whose impact I endured so I could hopefully witness a triumph of great acting (Joaquin Phoenix) or directing (Bong Joon Ho, Quentin Tarantino) but in every case I felt that my investment of energy, attention and willingness to go on the journey of the film did not give me enough in return to make it worthwhile.
This is an imperfect film that gives and gives and gives.
If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to rent A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood. Open up and let yourself receive the healing it so generously offers.