Mr. Rogers Was a Failure

Over the weekend, Elaine and I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Its overwhelmingly positive critical reviews speak for themselves; I certainly was inspired and moved in ways I both did and didn’t anticipate. (Never mind that I choked up several times.)

A common theme throughout the film revolves around Mr. Rogers’s doubts about the work he engaged in during his long career. Not that he doubted whether the work itself was good, but whether it was effective. He seemed to be constantly concerned that what he did wasn’t good enough and wasn’t accomplishing enough for American culture. His work was an attempt at cultivating an alternative reality to that of the slapstick and violent television that existed in the 60s and 70s.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film shows Fred Rogers in a moment of sadness and silence after being asked to make TV spots a month after 9/11. He seems unsettled and unsure that doing the same kind of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood-style work will have any effect on the American public in the face of such a terrible tragedy. The camera shows him at the beginning of a take, sitting at a piano, attempting to collect his thoughts. You can see sadness and struggle radiating from him, as if he cannot decide whether what he is about to say will even matter.

I know that Fred Rogers dealt with these struggles all of his life (in another scene of the documentary, his wife reads an old journal entry that he wrote which detailed these doubts about his work). What I found most inspiring is that he just keep going. He seemed to know that there was no other option, no other course of action that he could take if he wanted to see a better world. Which makes the scene above that much more disturbing — the reality is, all of his work was simply inadequate.

This reality is something most of us are not willing to admit if we are engaged in bringing about a better world. The real, brute fact about life is that doing good work often requires obscurity (Fred Rogers was by no means obscure, though), and will probably not make a large difference. Good work — if it is truly good work — fails. This means doing good requires relentless, reckless, constant, irrational vigilance

That is a sobering thought, and one that requires us to have a nearly impossible kind of faith.