A Tribute to My Old Friend Mr. Fred Rogers: Four Real Keys to Happiness
February 1, 2016
In the last several years of his life I had the chance to communicate with Mr. Rogers, who was based in nearby Pittsburgh. I was in Cleveland at the time, and the Steelers and the Browns were not on friendly terms. We spoke from time to time by phone, I visited his office a couple of times, and once we even had a little conference call with M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled, who lived in Connecticut but was a graduate of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, where I taught for twenty years.
So what do I think happiness meant to Mr. Rogers? He often wrote of being trusted, of helping others, of taking time out to reflect even if for a lot of people stillness feels like a waste of time, of being loyal to people when they are having some hard times and need a little help, of succeeding through kindness and more kindness, and of being humble because otherwise we don’t leave any room for others.
Fred Rogers (1928–2003) was among the most profound men I ever met, on equal par with with beloved Jean Vanier of L’Arche, Pastor Otis Moss, Jr. of Cleveland, and John Templeton (2012–2008). Fred devoted his life to encouraging in children the idea of a real love of neighbor, and the neighbor was everyone. He was a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and he served the world through the TV series Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (1968–2001). He said many things about love, and he lived them out in his neighborhood scenes:
“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing—that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”
“Real strength has to do with helping others.”
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
In tribute to Fred, who died in February thirteen years ago, I want to just say something about happiness that I believe he would approve of:
Happiness is mostly a matter of four things: (1) having a clear conscience and helping others, (2) loyalty, (3) simplicity (remember Fred’s simple sweaters, one of which sits in the Smithsonian), and (4) humbly acknowledging the spiritual. It doesn’t come from selfishness or hurting people, or from one more quasi-drunken party (Fred never drank and he was a vegetarian on ethical grounds because he didn’t want “to eat anything that has a mother”) where conscience goes out the door and someone gets hurt; it doesn’t come from dumping people or refusing to let relationships endure so as to allow for growth (he really believed in sticking with even your most difficult neighbor); it doesn’t come from yet another expensive pair of over-priced shoes or a hundred dollar dinner (Fred felt that only insecure people are materialistic, and what they really need is love).
Not bad. Happiness comes from good conscience and service, love expressed in loyalty, the simplicity that frees us from the hedonic treadmill, and humble spirituality. This, anyway, is how I have also tried to live my life—pretty happy and as it turns out pretty healthy. Although I have taught in medical schools for over 30 years in four states, I have never actually needed to see a doctor other than for routine annual checkups. Admittedly, this is merely an association.
(1) The best research shows that happiness comes from having a good conscience. That means simply following the Golden Rule in its more elevated rendition, “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). Just go about the day asking yourself how you can meaningfully contribute to the lives of others. In other words, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). This does not mean ignore or mistreat yourself. Rather, it means love yourself well, and try to do the same for others with balance. This Golden Rule appears in every worthy spiritual, religious, medical, and philosophical tradition of which I am aware.
(2) Happiness comes from loyalty in key relationships. No important relationship is free from challenges because human nature is a very mixed bag. In that old movie Seabiscuit, trainer Tom Smith says it all: “You can’t throw someone away because they are a little banged up. We are all a little banged up.” As we get to know others more deeply, especially as silly infatuations fade a bit, we realize that it all comes down to the humble recognition that just as he or she has imperfections (“warts and all”), so do I. This makes growth in tolerance, acceptance, compassion, and love possible. The work of love is seeing the good in people. So what is love? Here is the definition I have used over the years borrowing a bit from the University of Chicago psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan: When the happiness and security of another is as real and meaningful to you as your own, you love that person.
(3) Happiness comes from simplicity. Yesterday I got my old classical guitar re-strung and started off playing Christopher Parkening’s arrangement of Simple Gifts, the old Shaker hymn. I live very simply, and am mostly grateful for snow, for wind over the Long Island Sound, and for things like the smell of burning wood and roasting marshmallows in the village of Port Jefferson. So I am spared the credit card bills that come from what researchers call “the hedonic treadmill.”
(4) Happiness comes from spirituality. That could mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but let me try to describe it merely as taking the time each day to humbly acknowledge some sort of presence in the universe that is higher than our own. This is important because in our culture humility has fallen out of favor and wild self-inflation abounds. True spirituality always includes humility.
Fred Rogers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 for his contributions to children’s education. President George W. Bush said at the time, “Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young.”
Fred Rogers liked C.S. Lewis. There is a passage attributed to Lewis that I think Fred would like you all to read:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
Give and Live Better – TEDx talk
Stephen G. Post