Believe it or not, I’m just now getting acquainted with Mr. Rogers, thanks to his posthumous resurgence through a recent documentary about his career and an upcoming feature film starring Tom Hanks.
My brothers and I weren’t allowed to watch Mr. Rogers when we were little (“too fruity,” Mom said) so the mention of his TV show usually reminded me of Eddie Murphy’s parodies that aired in the 1980s on Saturday Night Live.
When my husband and I watched the recent documentary about the legendary children’s TV host, we found ourselves in a darkened theater with dozens of other graying moviegoers who shifted bifocals to dab tears from their eyes. Shoulder to shoulder, we quietly sniffled through the story of his career, his kindness, and his understated bravery against racism and hatred.
In that theater on that night, it was as if we’d been bathed in a healing balm. It’s the perfect antidote to our times, which likely explains the renewed interest in his messages.
The world seems to be getting meaner — not just here in the US, where a petty Twitter bully holds our highest office and our social and political divisions seem more rancorous than ever — but around the globe. Nationalism is on the rise. Refugees huddle in makeshift camps. Tsunami survivors go hungry amid rubble and corpses while corrupt bureaucrats delay shipments of aid.
I was thinking today of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous assertion that the arc of moral history ultimately bends toward justice. My gut tells me that’s true. My brain surmises that it’s a truthful assertion. Right now, though, my heart fears that our moral arc has taken a jagged detour.
Looking up Dr. King’s words, I learned that he was paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an abolitionist and a minister in the Unitarian Church (my people!). He was the kind of articulate writer and speaker who even inspired the phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
I imagine Parker’s life of activism, and the despair he must have felt, working for so long against the indifference and convenient defenses of a culture so accepting of slavery, so blind to the suffering and inhumanity. He died at age 49 from tuberculosis, and just before the outbreak of the Civil War. He didn’t live to see an end to slavery, but in the final months of his life he retreated to Florence, Italy, where he died among expats and kindred spirits — poets, social critics, and activists, including Frances Power Cobbe, who devoted her life to the causes of women’s suffrage and animal welfare.
Cobbe founded the (British) National Anti-Vivisection Society. Even though she lived to be 81, she never saw the end of vivisection. In fact, today — 114 years after her death — we still haven’t abolished cruel testing and experimentation on animals.
The moral arc is long indeed.
But I’m struck by the way these activists and creatives and enlightened souls banded together, forming close-knit communities where a weary activist could retreat, even traveling ill across oceans so he could breathe his final breaths among like-minded companions.
We need those communities. And that’s why I’m thinking today of Mr. Rogers, and his story about his mother’s advice when he saw disturbing and frightening realities in the movies or on the news. “Always look for the helpers,” she told him. “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”
Look for the aid workers, pushing against bureaucratic barriers to bring food to hungry survivors. Look for the animal rescuers, the activists, the tireless crusaders, who might not even live to see the completion of their goal.
And so, tonight I will go to the meeting of our racial justice organizing committee, knowing that among the mundane details of meeting minutes and committee reports there is a vital energy, a hope for a future with greater moral justice. There are kindred spirits. There are people trying to bring kindness to an unkind world.
And this weekend I’ll gather with my friends. We call ourselves the sister wives. In each other’s company we won’t have to articulate why the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings triggered the hell out of our survivor brains, or why we’re sleeping more fitfully after days of shouted upsets and whispered sneers reminding us that it’s dangerous to be female in this broken world.
On Sunday I’ll help build a play structure for the rescued goats at the farm animal sanctuary, sharing hammers and saws with like-minded vegans, with gentle souls trying to bring more compassion to a cruel world.
Huddle and retreat. Cherish your kindred spirits. Or seek them out if you don’t already have them in your life. Because the world truly is broken. And countless people are working to repair it. Look for them.