Building Our Neighborhood

Date: Wed, 19 Mar 2003 05:10:26 -0800 (PST)

Dear All,

Our nation stands on the eve of war. Whatever you think of the war upon which our nation will soon engage, whether you support it or believe that it is a terrible mistake, one thing is beyond doubt: war is an awful thing. Whether its long-term consequences are good or ill, are a free and democratic Iraq and a more secure world as the President hopes, or a region and world driven into further conflict and instability as so many fear, its immediate consequences will be those of any war: death, fear, pain, sickness. Nightmares are coming. War is coming.

In a time of fear and anxiety about what is to come in the days and months ahead, when it might even cross our minds that perhaps the world is spinning out of control not just Iraq, but a nuclear North Korea, unending violence in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism still looming, a government at home that seems to be bargaining away our future it does us well, I think, to reconnect with basic principles on how to build a better world. With the destruction of war only hours or days away, it is worth pausing to think about construction, not only of a post-war Iraq, but of the construction we can each bring about, each in our own way. Much of the world may seem far off and beyond our power to influence, but what we do every day affects our neighbors, both near and far. Sometimes our endeavors to do good will be quickly felt. Other times they may take longer, maybe much longer, to have a palpable effect. But even then, when we can discern no difference, we will still be those ripples of hope of which Robert Kennedy once spoke. He said that every time a person "stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Very few people I know of sent out more ripples of hope, or were more devoted to improving the lot of others by building a better world, one based on love and kindness, than Fred Rogers. His neighborhood was a peaceful place. His lessons can help us build a more peaceful world.

I grew up with him, as did so many millions of others, as did some of you. But I never grew out of him, and I never will. I think that's because his goodness, his cheerfulness, his belief in the value of every person and perhaps above all his openness and conviction in that belief touched me so deeply. Thinking about Fred Rogers or Mister Rogers, as he is known to so many after his death in late February, it occurred to me that he was probably the world's most important human rights educator. He reached millions of people in their young, formative years with the basic message underlying the human rights movement: respect the incredible value and worth of each individual. In a fast-paced world, the most important messages too easily and too frequently get lost. Loving, sharing, kindness, feelings, who has time to talk about these? Mr. Rogers always did.

All the world could and still can learn from his lessons. How special each person is, and how special is the world and life itself ("did you know that it's all right to wonder....did you know that it's all right to marvel...."). He tried to help people be the best they could be, and at the same time, he encouraged his neighbors that's all of us to be the kind of people that will create a better world. And no wonder, for the two go together. Love yourself, love others, you love the world, you add love to the world. A better you and a better world.

In a world that has such craziness, such problems, his neighborhood was a welcome refuge for me, a place where every person really mattered, where love reigned, where helping people was the order of the day. I have a special place in my heart for Mr. Rogers, perhaps because I experienced firsthand his genuineness. Nearly 25 years ago, my father interviewed Mr. Rogers for a magazine article he was writing. Long afterwards, after Mr. Rogers sent me a copy of his book "You Are Special," and included a kind, typically Mr. Rogers note, he and I had a short, deeply rewarding exchange of letters.

He taught some profound truths. He told us almost daily, "There's only one person in the whole world like you, and that's you yourself. And people can like you exactly the way you are." Despite pressures to conform that may seem to come from all directions, we can each think for ourselves, and each define for ourselves success and family and meaning and all those other aspects of our lives that are so important to who we are.

"When your heart has room for everybody, then your heart is full of love," concluded one of his songs. In an increasingly diverse nation that is part of an increasingly interconnected world, what an incredibly important lesson this is. Room for people who are of different races and ethnicities and nationalities and religions from ourselves, room for the poor and the homeless, room for people who live on different continents, room for immigrants, room for those we have never met and will never meet, room for everybody.

"Love is stronger than your fears." In the immigrant unfriendly America that has emerged post-September 11, and in the restrictions on liberties such as the one that allows people to be held indefinitely on the government's whim, our government has let fear get the best of it. By fostering a national conscience that is defined by a commitment to destroying terror rather than to building hope, our government has let fear get the best of it. Love must be stronger than our fears.

Ours is a complex world. Sometimes not even the most profound wisdom can provide a clear answer. But the lessons of Mr. Rogers can point us in the right direction, can remind us what is important as we confront difficult decisions and trying circumstances. We know something is terribly amiss when the principle of abiding respect for every person is violated, as happens, for example, so frequently in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In this conflict and others, I am reminded of the wisdom of Mr. Rogers' song about controlling anger: "It's great to be able to stop/ When you've planned a thing that's wrong,/ And be able to do something else instead/ And think this song:/ I can stop when I want to/ Can stop when I wish." Stop and re-evaluate, so often such important advice.

Sometimes, what should be done is much clearer. We often know what it would mean to treat each person as special. We know the homeless at our doorsteps would have a decent place to live, food to eat, perhaps counseling, and might be receiving education or training, or have a job. The people living with HIV/AIDS in a small village in South Africa would be receiving medication and other support. Yet the homeless are still on our doorsteps, HIV/AIDS is still killing millions. There are still so many people we don't treat as very special at all.

I don't know how much Mr. Rogers was directly involved with these types of issues. But as we grow older, the gifts he gave us seem to be a way of understanding the world and each other that can enable us to face the issues before us from the most personal to the most global with respect for every person, with caring, with understanding, with love, with honesty.

During one episode of his show, when Mr. Rogers gave a gift to his neighbor Mr. McFeely (the mailman), who responded with excited thanks, Mr. Rogers said, "It was like he was giving me a gift, the way he accepted mine." Mr. Rogers has given us all an enormous gift. And if we take his gift to heart, we will give the gift to our neighbors, and they to their neighbors, and the gift will travel around the world, and back to us.

Let me end with two things Mr. Rogers once said, which have been gifts to me and can guide us in building our neighborhood.

"The more you grow into a helpful person yourself, the happier you'll find this world of ours is."

"It's very important to find that loving part of you. That's the part you must take good care of and never be mean to. Because that's the part of you that allows you to love your neighbor, and your neighbor is anyone you happen to be with at any time in your life."

In peace, your neighbor,


"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

Back to Better World.