I harbor a lot of mistrust towards anything that purports to be “non-fiction.” If I know you’re lying to me, I can figure out what you’re trying to say. But if you say you’re telling me the truth, then I’m immediately suspicious.
I have a complex.
Thus, you’d expect that I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch a limited-release documentary – and you’d generally be right. However, we’re talking about Fred Rogers here, the closest America has ever come to producing a universally-acknowledged saint. The man has a reputation for being one of the kindest, most sincere individuals to ever rise to public prominence. I guess I was looking for a little kindness and sincerity.
I don’t have enough of a reference pool for documentaries to know if this one is a good one, so if you’re here for deep, insightful film criticism… I mean, I liked it. Of course I did. Go see it. See it twice. Take your dad. He misses you.
I didn’t come away from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trying to figure out what it was trying to sell me on. I didn’t walk away looking for inconsistencies, or questioning whether everything I just saw actually happened, or if the subjects interviewed really believed what they said about Fred Rogers. I came away questioning MYSELF, more than anything. And I found myself wanting.
Fred Rogers had a ministry, a calling from God, to teach and support children. He vowed to help children cope with the difficulties of life so that they could grow into stronger, braver adults. He wanted (and I apologize for the cliché) to “make the world a better place.”
I’m not sure he ever felt like he succeeded in that ministry.
In one of the most striking moments of the film, Rogers questions whether the good he does is enough. In the wake of 9/11, he sees the immensity of evil in the world, and, for a moment, he feels defeated. Sure, he pulls together in the end and delivers a hopeful message, just as we all knew he would, but that doubt was there.
At the end of his life, Rogers questioned, “Am I a sheep?” Meaning, will I be saved, or will I, like the goats, go to hell? Was my ministry enough, or did I disappoint my creator?
I don’t know that I have ever related to a cultural icon more in my life. I know, objectively, that my little corner of the world is in better shape than it’s ever been before. However, I see so, so many problems, and I feel this great desire to try to do something about them, fix them. And it never, ever feels like its enough.
Thus, I feel like a failure. Like so many people do. Like Fred Rogers did, despite all his extraordinary success. What can you do?
Well, one thing you can do is maybe take to heart a little wisdom from the man himself: “…for all the rest of your days and nights, I hope you can remember that you never have to do anything sensational for people to love you.”
It seems apparent to me, reading this now, that I waited a few days after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? before writing. Coming out of the theater, I felt cheery and uplifted. Today, however, I feel worn down, tired, and frustrated. And that’s shaped my perspective on the film more than a bit, I’m sure.
It’s true: you will never do enough good to outweigh the bad. It’s literally impossible. Hopefully, however, we don’t look at the enormity of the task and give up. Rather, we should take it as a challenge: “We can never do ‘enough’ good, so why should we ever stop?”
Do whatever good you can, wherever you can, however you can. Bolster the fearful. Comfort the mourner. Stand by your friends, and have patience with those you disagree with.
And, seriously, call your dad. Don’t make me ask you again.