(Photo courtesy of The Atlantic)
What It Means to Be a Neighbor
A Lesson Learned From The Iconic Children’s TV Show
By Sarah Komisky
There are many lessons TV songs gave to me. I learned about good health, counting, ABC’s, and that a sunny outlook could keep clouds away from Sesame Street. But Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood reminded me of the simple truth of what it means to love my neighbor.
Besides wondering what color cardigan Mr. Rogers would wear next or where the next trip would be on the trolley to the neighborhood of make-believe, I was also fascinated with the jazzy jingle, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It’s premise if probably one of the things that stuck out most when my mind processes the show from my youth.
Although it’s catchy and quaint, it’s also was truth. In one episode, Mr. Rogers happily shares that he received an apple on his walk from his neighbor and then invites us (his neighbors) to take a trip with him to the neighborhood grocery store where he strikes us conversation with locals. This was one of many examples Mr. Rogers modeled how to practice being present and intentional with people. He reminded audiences each episode that they were his neighbors and were unique and special. Talk about a world-changer.
It’s no wonder we are fascinated with the man today who simply practiced what it meant to sincerely love your neighbor. A legacy that continues to have us marveling, as evident by the films released in 2018 and 2019 about his life. Maybe because being neighborly is so foreign. And if we’re honest, scarce. In the 1960’s, when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted, people could relate a lot more to a neighborhood where people knew the postman, the butcher, the teacher, the policeman, and the elderly Mrs. so-and-so down the street. It’s just how things were. Even at the start of the millennium when the show concluded it’s run, the world was still void of Apple iPhones and social media. A world that still called people on their phones from home and was used to face-to-face interaction.
Today, if we’re honest, the idea of “neighbor” is a little foreign. We might not even know who lives next door, needless to say on our entire block. And if we are getting really honest, do we want to? The idea of taking time to get to know our neighbor has become novel and designated to yesteryear’s because, well, the world has changed. We’re more suspicious. We’re also too busy. And, we’re more comfortable living in virtual community where we can scroll and swipe without having to get honest or messy or even close to, well, anyone. It’s easier to hide our true selves. To not risk and to not hurt as a result. Plus, our days are filled with almost too many demands and too little energy to converse with even people we know, let alone those we deem strangers. There’s the whole anxiety factor of getting to know someone new that we may not be willing to take. Did I mention change? Yeah, not gonna go there and the monologue goes on and on, or so we tell ourselves.
If we get down to the nitty-gritty of ourselves as people in 2019, Mr. Rogers still captivates our attention because he values and exemplifies something we secretly crave – meaning, togetherness, and true connection.
Interestingly, before Fred Rogers posed this idea about loving your neighbor (since he was a Christ follower), Jesus addressed the subject. In the Bible, He talked about the commandment of loving God with all that we have and to do likewise with our neighbor, loving them as we love ourselves. When a religious leader defensively asked who exactly his neighbor was, Jesus told them the famous parable of the Good Samaritan – the most vivid example of this truth.
Although that dialogue was years ago, we can still relate. Like the religious leaders, we ourselves can be prejudiced. We have our hesitations about being “neighborly.” It’s because we don’t want to be inconvenienced. We don’t want to take risk. We are scared. We are used to staying comfortable.
However, Jesus Himself was the most beautiful illustration of practicing presence with people. He said yes to dinner party invites. He took time to see and sit with people, all different people. He crossed cultural boundaries and norms to get to know and be present with those in his neighborhood. Women. Children. The sick. The misunderstood. The castoffs. The churched, and the unchurched. People. And when this happened, Jesus changed the world – His world.
Mr. Rodgers, a Christ-follower, took this seriously. On his show, his neighbors included “friends with a variety of interests and talents who care about and learn from each other.” That’s the kind of neighbor Jesus was talking about. And in turn, millions were affected by his ability to challenge people to practice presence. To offer ourselves as true neighbors. To love someone with God’s love and love each other despite our differences. To say, you matter, you are seen and you worthy of my connection. Mr. Rodgers changed his world with these values and we too can change ours, one neighbor at a time.