There is a lot of good buzz about Fred Rogers building up to the release of his biopic starring Tom Hanks this week.
All exceedingly well deserved.
No doubt everyone could use some of the gentle kindness and wisdom he shared during the 31 seasons his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, ran on PBS.
Mr. Rogers, who died in 2003, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and used his show as a platform to skillfully deliver a message of acceptance and compassion to his audience – both young and old.
His iconic red sweater is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution.
Mr. Rogers believed his work was a ministry, describing the place between the television set and his viewers as “holy ground.”
The lens through which Mr. Rogers saw life embraced others unconditionally. Who did he define as the “neighbors” in his neighborhood?
Whoever you happen to be with at the moment – especially those in need.
And that gift for loving the person right there can be seen in the lasting impact of his message.
There is a wonderful story of how Mr. Rogers’ voice on the television helped a well-known sitcom actress, then addicted to cocaine, experience a moment of clarity and begin her recovery journey.
Lauren Tewes, played the role of Julie on the ‘80’s television show Love Boat. She said her addiction made her feel: “… guilty. I felt shame and humiliation and disgust and disappointment and every other bad word you could think of. I knew I had gotten myself into a situation I could not get out of by myself. I secretly begged and begged and begged for someone to help me. And for me it was an issue of cocaine in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, which was a popular drug.”
Her substance use disorder caused her to be fired from her popular TV comedy job.
One morning in 1984 while deep in the throes of her illness, she randomly turned on her TV and Mr. Rogers’ show was on the screen. She heard him singing his well- known song Won’t You Be My Friend. Something about his voice singing those words touched her deeply and she began to cry.
She later described the moment as “God speaking to me through the instrument of Mr. Rogers.”
She has been in recovery since that morning.
Mr. Rogers was characteristically humble about this event.
“Of all the moments in her life to have turned on the television set at that particular time and at that particular channel (is special)” he said. “That we could have been a vehicle of help at that time is something I’m very grateful for.”
We all need a “vehicle of help” in the midst of an addiction crisis, as substance use disorder impacts an entire family system. Kindness, compassion, understanding and gentleness can sometimes feel in short supply as a family struggles to get help for their loved one and for themselves.
While he never imposed his personal beliefs on anyone, Mr. Rogers spiritual life was foundational to his effectiveness of his work. He would get up before dawn every morning to pray and read the Bible.
In can be very helpful – whatever belief system we hold – to have spiritual practices as a foundation in our own lives. Times set aside for silence, prayer, journaling, meditation, reading a daily devotion and reflection can give us a deeper sense of connection to a Divine Presence providing peace and guidance to help our addicted loved ones and ourselves.
Like Lauren Tewes, leaning into comforting message sources as embodied by Mr. Rogers can heal us and help us navigate the rough paths of dysfunction inherent in addiction.
Mr. Rogers’ final message a few weeks before he died was particularly grace- filled. He spoke to his now- adult viewers about carrying on the work of caring.
“I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead,” he said. “But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger – I like you just the way you are.
And what’s more, I am so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you will do everything you can to help keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing to many different neighborhoods.
It’s such a good feeling to know we are lifelong friends.”
May Mr. Rogers’ legacy continue to generate and support the best qualities in each other and those we love.
For information and guidance for help and resources for you or your loved one please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nancy is co-author of Unchained: Our Family’s Addiction Mess Is Our Message.