TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — I”m A Mess, You’re A Mess … And Fred Rogers’ Most Important Teaching

A particularly memorable moment in my travels with the message of Fred Rogers came a few years ago in a junior high school gym in Tampa, Fla. That afternoon, I shared with 600 students how, after meeting Mister Rogers in the mid-1990s, the great man mentored and loved me through a very, very difficult time in my life. They were right with me, those kids. In my experience, young people love it when adults admit to going through hard times.

But I most vividly remember what happened at the end of my talk, when I said I had a confession to make. I sensed the kids leaning forward in the bleachers.

“I’m a mess,” I said. “Maybe not quite as much of a mess as I was 20 years ago, but still a mess.”

A selfie with young friends in Tampa, Fla.
A selfie with young friends in Tampa, Fla.

My young audience erupted.

“But wait a minute,” I said when the noise died down. “I’ve got news for you. You are a mess, too, every last one of you.”

The second eruption was louder than the first.

“There is another word for mess,” I said. “It’s human. And the good news is that we don’t have to be messes alone.”

The kids absolutely took the roof off the place.

They were responding to a supremely important part of Mister Rogers’ message. Though he never used the word mess, so far as I know, Fred taught that we all have hidden struggles and in fact, those burdens are what we have most in common.

But most of us live as if the opposite was true. We go through life believing in our “terminal uniqueness,” that we are the only ones feeling anger, sadness, shame, grief, fear, depression and self-doubt. Feelings are character defects, not inevitable and universal aspects of the human condition.

Sadness, anger, shame, etc. are painful enough, but we greatly compound our misery judging our feelings and thus ourselves. Out in the world we isolate ourselves, pretending to feel better than we do, learning from an early age to fake it, loathe to share our pain and vulnerabilities. Feelings get turned destructively inward or come out sideways in very unfortunate ways.

This is one of the great tragedies of our species. And so unnecessary. The truth is that pain and suffering can sanctify. I was struck by the following passage in a recent essay by Pico Iyer, an author and longtime friend of the Dalai Lama.

Wouldn't you love to know what they were laughing about?
Wouldn’t you love to know what they were laughing about?

“… holiness and humanness may be more closely entwined than we imagine,” Iyer wrote in theNew York Times. “Speaking to the Dalai Lama for 44 years now, I’m often most touched when he stresses how mortal he is, sometimes impatient, sometimes grieving, just like all the rest of us. I keep returning to the novels of Graham Greene because he reminds us that a ‘whisky priest’ can get drunk, neglect every duty, even father a child, yet still rise to a level of kindness and selflessness that a pious cardinal might envy. It’s in our vulnerability, Greene knew, that our strength truly lies (if only because our capacity to feel for everyone else lies there, too).”

One of the great gifts of my middle age has been an increasing willingness to accept and even embrace the messy parts of my being. Among my teachers in this regard, of course, was Fred Rogers. No person in our age has done more to coax us out from our existential hiding, to teach us the sacred if often painful truth of our insides.

In fact, I think Fred’s most important teaching concerns feelings: That they are neither good nor bad, and their origins are beyond our ability to know. They just are. All we can do is accept them, feel them, express them in ways that don’t hurt ourselves or others and share them with those we trust.

It was no coincidence that in Fred’s iconic appearance before a Senate committee in 1968, a turning point in his testimony came when he shared the lyrics of one of his songs: “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel: When You Feel So Mad You Can Bite?”

And just few days ago, I came across another one of his songs, thanks to my friend Rick Lee James and his Twitter site, @MisterRogersSay. The title is “Truth Will Make Me Free.”

What if I were very, very sad
And all I did was smile?
I wonder after a while
What might become of my sadness?

What if I were very, very angry,
And all I did was sit
And never think about it?
What might become of my anger?

Where would they go, and what would they do
If I couldn’t let them out?
Maybe I’d fall, maybe get sick
Or doubt.

But what if I could know the truth
And say just how I feel?
I think I’d learn a lot that’s real
About freedom.

I’m learning to sing a sad song when I’m sad.
I’m learning to say I’m angry when I’m very mad.
I’m learning to shout,
I’m getting it out,
I’m happy, learning
Exactly how I feel inside of me
I’m learning to know the truth
I’m learning to tell the truth
Discovering truth will make me free.


TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Simplicity

A few weeks ago, I came across a book from the 1990s called, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.” The author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has for decades been a leader of the mindfulness movement and has introduced mindfulness into the practice of medicine.

I’ve found the book a treasure as I attempt to cultivate, in very halting ways, a greater sense of presence in my own life. I read the following passage this morning. The author writes of what he called, “voluntary simplicity.” The words helped lower my pulse rate. Maybe it will have the same effect on you.

Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Voluntary simplicity, Kabat-Zinn says, “involves intentionally doing only one thing at a time and making sure I am here for it. Many occasions present themselves: taking a walk, for instance, or spending a few moments with the dog in which I am really with the dog.

“Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more. It all ties in.

“It’s not a real option for me as a father of young children, a breadwinner, a husband, an oldest son to my parents, a person who cares deeply about his work to go off to one Walden Pond or another and sit under a tree for a few years, listening to the grass grow and the seasons change, much as the impulse beckons at times.

“But within the organized chaos and complexity of family life and work, with all their demands and responsibilities, frustrations and unsurpassed gifts, there is ample opportunity for choosing simplicity in small ways. Slowing everything down is a big part of this.

“Telling my mind and body to stay put with my daughter rather than answering the phone, not reacting to inner impulses to call someone who ‘needs calling’ right in that moment, choosing not to acquire new things on impulse, or even to automatically answer the siren call of magazines or television or movies on the first ring are all ways to simplify one’s life a little.

“Others are maybe just to sit for an evening and do nothing, or to read a book, or go for a walk alone or with a child or with my wife, to restack the woodpile or look at the moon, or feel the air on my face under the trees, or go to sleep early.

“I practice saying no to keep my life simple, and I find I never do it enough. It’s an arduous discipline all its own, and well worth the effort.

“Yet it is also tricky. There are needs and opportunities to which one must respond. A commitment to simplicity in the midst of the world is a delicate balancing act. It is always in need of retuning, further inquiry, attention. But I find the notion of voluntary simplicity keeps me mindful of what is important, of an ecology of mind and body and world in which everything is interconnected and every choice has far-reaching consequences. You don’t get to control it all.

But choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Won’t You Be My Neighbor

On Sept. 21, 1996, a sunny Saturday morning, I had settled in with a cup of coffee and the sports page when the telephone rang in our suburban Texas home. When I answered, I was surprised to hear the voice of Fred Rogers at the other end of the line. Within a few seconds I could tell that my friend was weeping.

“Tim, I just heard that Henri (Nouwen) died this morning in Holland,” Fred said. “I just had to talk to someone who understands how I feel.”

Fred and I had often discussed Henri, the Dutch priest and acclaimed spiritual writer who was also Fred’s good friend. But until that morning, Fred had listened as I poured out my tattered heart. (“Fred, I have a question to ask. Would you be proud of me?”) Now he trusted me enough to reveal a piece of his own. I realized that morning that our friendship was truly reciprocal. On a few other occasions over the years, Fred shared things that troubled him.

Those moments of his vulnerability are what I think about most now, after having seen the wonderful documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It poetically and tenderly documents his human greatness, but in an unstinting way.

It was said that the puppet in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Daniel Tiger, was his alter ego and in one episode, Daniel asks if he was a mistake.

Were it not for Fat Freddy, the chunky boy who was bullied, there might not have been a Mister Rogers.

His wife said she thought Fred seemed downcast after he filmed his last episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Shortly before his death, he asked her if she thought he would be going to heaven.

All of which is to say that, yes, Fred was one of the greatest human beings ever to walk our planet, but he did not come to us from a spiritual mountaintop. He was fully human instead, a person who grappled with the inner difficulties so familiar to the rest of us. I think there is comfort in knowing this. My regard for him has only grown.

Now, thanks to the documentary and to a feature film due out next year, this wounded healer returns to us at the moment of human history when is voice and spirit are needed most. However beautifully the documentary is achieved, I think that partially explains its popularity now.

What was balm it was to hear him and listen in a closing scene as he asked his audience to take a minute to remember those who have loved us into being.

But it was this was the line from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” that I remember more than any other. Fred said that all of us, however broken we might be, are called to be “healers of creation.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Spirit Of The Mountains

I spent the last week camping alone in the Rocky Mountains. My home was three miles into the wilderness on a jarring moonscape of a Forest Service road. I pitched my tent above a stream, beneath a canopy of spruce and aspen, just me and trees and  water and mountains folded into one another for as far as I could see. Such places are a bane to writers because there are really no words that do them justice.

It was 31 degrees when I crawled from my sleeping bag the first morning, but it warmed quickly when the sun inched over the eastern ridge. I hiked to the end of the forest road, then on a trail through the forest that opened into a vast valley surrounded by jagged peaks. Again, I had this world to myself.

The next day I climbed four hours to a ridge below the summit of a 14,000-foot mountain called La Plata. The first half of the hike was through the forest. Above the tree line on the climb to the ridge, nature revealed itself ever more beautifully and fiercely with each step.

But this was a different experience, a communal one. Scores of others joined me on that trail, most of them not stopping at the ridge but aiming for the top of the mountain. I met them every few minutes, passing me on the way up or as they made their way down. They ranged in age from 10 to 70, men and women, boys and girls.

But there was something they shared, a certain inner luminosity, a quiet joy. It was acknowledged with a nod or a smile or a few kind words of encouragement for a plodding old guy like me. There was a wonderful, unspoken truth up there, something about the grandeur of nature and the expansiveness of the human soul.

After my magnificent hike, I drove into a nearby town where there was cell service and checked in with my wife, letting her know that I was OK. I also couldn’t resist checking the news, the latest developments of our public life. It was somewhat surreal that the incivility and cruelty I read about was taking place on the same beautiful planet.

It is my belief, my prayer, that someday soon the spirit of the mountains and my fellow hikers will more generally imbue the places where we are governed.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — My Journey With Central American Refugees

On a winter afternoon in 1989, I climbed into the cargo hold of a crowded Ryder rental truck, finding my place amid 49 Central American refugees. Over the next 11 hours, on a journey from the Texas border town of Harlingen to Houston, I listened to the stories of the men, women and children, people who in some cases had walked north across Mexico to get to the United States.

“Each could speak of suffering in the lives they left behind — civil war and economic depression in Nicaragua, civil war in El Salvador, unrest that had spilled over into Guatemala and Honduras,” I wrote a few days later in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Even long hours in a crowded truck were better than that.

“And as minutes on the truck stretched on, each clung to an almost blind, perhaps naïve faith in the United States and its people — the hope that life would be better here.”

I remember how a smile seemed permanently affixed to the face of an 18-year-old named Richard Espinoza, whose tennis shoes dangled from the rear of the truck as we sped north. He traveled alone, penniless, with no means to get to friends in Miami, but he seemed without fear.

At one point, he grabbed my pen and notebook, scribbling out a short message in English.

“I fel (sic) very happy in the U.S.A.,” he wrote. “The people nice. Thank you very much, forever.”

But for me there is so much more to the story of that day. Given our barbaric current events, I’m telling it here for the first time.


The refugee and immigration crisis, especially at our southern border, has been a chronic one, stretching back generations. In 1988, as conditions deteriorated in Central America, tens of thousands inundated the U.S. border to apply for political asylum, then were forced to live in border squatter camps until their claims could be adjudicated.

That changed in January 1989, when a federal judge ruled that the asylum applicants could no longer be detained in the Rio Grande Valley and were free to travel to other parts of the country until their cases were heard. Within hours, buses bound for Houston, Los Angeles and Miami were full. Hundreds of other refugees with no money were left to hitchhike or wait.

It was big national news at the time, much like the refugee story is now, and the Star-Telegram sent me to the border to cover it. The assignment nearly broke me instead. I was a young reporter suddenly competing with seasoned journalists from New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago. As many of you know, these were years of depression and self-loathing, and one the biggest assignments of my career threatened to push me over the edge.

After arriving at the border, I had hired a Spanish-speaking high school student to interpret for me but returned him to his school just minutes after we met. The kid looked at me quizzically when I told him there had been a change of plans. I found a deserted country road so I could be alone if I came completely unglued. I eventually drove back to town, found a pay phone in Brownsville, called a friend and began to sob at the sound of his voice.

When the waves of emotion had subsided, I explained my assignment, and shared my fears.

“Here’s all you have to do,” my friend said. “Get in your car, drive to Harlingen, and see what happens.”


There was chaos outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters, hundreds of stranded refugees milling about. That’s where I found Kathryn Ortega, as she helped dozens of them into the back of the yellow rental truck. She told me that she and relatives had driven down from Houston to deliver 4,000 pounds of rice to help feed the refugees. When the truck was empty their pleas began.

“They kept saying, ‘Please take us,’” she told me. “I couldn’t say no. This is a free ride to where they can get help.”

On the spur of the moment I asked to ride with them. My own feet soon dangled over the end of the open cargo hold as we pulled away in midafternoon, heading north into the country. Every few miles for the first 20, we passed refugees in groups of three and four, belongings slung over their shoulders as they headed the same direction on foot.

Ortega translated as I listened to the stories of violence and poverty that the passengers were attempting to leave behind. Outside the truck, a setting sun cast an orange hue on sprawling flatlands where cattle foraged amid mesquite. Some of the people talked quietly as we drove. Others read Bibles. Mothers held sleeping children. One small girl in pigtails busily ate a bologna sandwich with one hand and clutched a stuffed yellow rabbit with the other.

And at some point, I realized my suffering from that morning was gone. Because of them. The shared humanity in the back of that truck was much more powerful than my misery. In our cramped quarters, all but heart and soul had been stripped away and barriers of language and background were dissolved. I realize now the extent to which we are all refugees in one way or another, human beings trying to make our way in an often cruel and difficult world.

The truck pulled into a town at dusk and we stopped outside a supermarket, where Ortega bought milk, bread and sandwich meat. When the passengers gathered around picnic tables at nearby park, the refugees made sure I was fed.

We set off again into the darkness. Most of the people dozed off, holding loved ones. The only sounds were the hum of the road and the beautiful tenor voice of young Richard Espinoza, who sang a plaintive folk song in Spanish.

Then something happened I will never forget. As we were jostled about in the crowded truck, I felt a tap at my shoulder. It was a young man who had pulled his daughter onto his lap, making room for me to lay down and sleep.


The truck finally pulled into Ortega’s Houston apartment complex long after midnight. I shared a meal of rice and beans with my new friends, then said my goodbyes and disappeared into a cab.

But I’ve seen their faces again this last week, on the news. Nearly 30 years later, as I think of my fellow refugees, I wonder what their lives have been like since we shared that remarkable journey. My fervent prayer is that they have found the United States everything they dreamed it would be

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Dark Genius Of Humanity

How many really know you? How many know of your fear, your sadness, your shame, your anger, your depression? They are questions worth asking at any time, but particularly this week.

I had no clue who Kate Spade was, so her suicide registered faintly, but the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death jolted me. I saw a lot of living, a lot of pain in his 61-year old face, but he was traveling the world, doing things that most of us can only dream of doing, with joie de vivre and roguish panache. And dead now, from his own hand, in his France hotel room.

How many knew the truth of his life?

I’ve come to believe that the great tragedy of humanity is not our inevitable pain, the frailties and struggles but the isolation so many of us feel. The great Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, a transparent sufferer himself, famously said that what is most personal is most universal. By that he meant that those frailties are precisely what we have most in common with others. Yet we remain inclined to believe that we are unique, comparing our tattered insides with the outsides of others, not knowing that most of those others pretend like we pretend. The dark genius of humanity is our great ability to conceal the truth of our insides from one another. We are all such great actors.

I was damn good at it, too. In the mid-1990s, when I was enjoying success and recognition in my career, I was dying inside. I understand suicide, how the terrible disease of depression can trump all love and logic. I also understand how isolating depression can be. I’m lucky to be alive myself, frankly, lucky that the choice I eventually made was to try and defy the disease and reach out to others, Fred Rogers included.

I’ve traveled a long road to heal —  know that it takes patience and loads of self-acceptance, and trusted others who know the truth about your insides and find it a privilege to walk with you, sharing their own truths along the way. Finding those people takes some discernment … but they are everywhere, waiting.

This week I spent sacred hours talking about the deepest things with friends who know me to my marrow, who have walked with me through the darkness and now accompany me to this amazing place of light and peace. This week I read of skyrocketing suicide rates, and celebrity suicides and can’t help but wonder, how many really knew those who died.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — ‘Go Placidly Amid The Noise And Haste …’

Up early on Sunday morning, in time to hear a gentle rain begin to fall, a brief reprieve from the coming heat of a Texas summer. As I sat listening, this phrase popped into my head.

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste …”

I saw it years ago on a poster hanging on the wall of a friend’s kitchen. As I listened to the rain, I looked up the whole thing, “Desiderata.” Very glad I did. Max Ehrmann’s poem are words for our time, even this:

“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

“Happy to share the rest.

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.

“As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

“Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

“Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

“With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Psych 101: How To Be (Really) Happy

In the autumn of 1995, on my first visit to the office of Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh, I noticed three Emmy Awards stacked in the clutter atop a filing cabinet, like neglected bookends. No trophy case for Fred.

I asked him about the awards.

“I don’t know how to talk of it,” the icon of children’s television said . “If it’s the outside stuff that’s going to nourish you …”

It was a passing comment, made before we sat down for the first of several long and wonderful interviews about important things. But in that moment, Fred touched upon what I think is a great tragedy of our age. We continue to believe that the outside stuff is going to nourish us, make us truly happy, bring peace and meaning to our lives.

My heart breaks especially for young people, the students obsessed with test scores and college admissions, grade point averages and getting a leg up on the world. It is really a surprise that studies show that nearly half of all college students feel deeply anxious or hopeless?

Which is why I found a recent story in the Washington Post story so poignant and hopeful. It described a Yale psychology class in which the professor, Laurie Santos, surprised her students one day by canceling her lecture. There was one huge caveat. They couldn’t use the 75 minutes to study, they had to enjoy it.

Laurie Santos
Laurie Santos

“Nine students hugged her,” wrote the Post’s Susan Svrluga. “Two burst into tears.”

A senior visited the Yale Art Gallery for the first time in four years. Others went to a recording studio and worked on a song. Another ate the lunch he had been skipping to study and played Frisbee. Another took a nap. (Do yourself a favor and read the whole story here.)

Word began to spread about the course entitled Psychology and the Good Life, and nearly a quarter of the Yale student body signed up. Santos designed the class a few years ago after witnessing the misery of so many young people on campus, an experience “far more crushing and joyless than her own college years,” the story said.

“I worry so much how they’re going to look back on it,” Santos said. “They feel they’re in this crazy rat race, they’re working so hard they can’t take a single hour off — that’s awful.”

But it’s not just young people, and not just this generation. It was in the 1800s that Henry David Thoreau wrote “the mass of men (and women, it’s safe to say,) lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That certainly describes my life in the mid-1990s, when I met Fred Rogers. As a man in my early 40s, my depression and despair were carefully hidden, but deep and seemingly impenetrable. Fred called them my Furies.

The cure, I believed, would be professional recognition. I believed that right up until I started winning a series of major awards for my writing. Needless to say, they did nothing to alleviate my inner torments, and if anything, made them worse. The awards, it turned out, were fool’s gold. I started to ask myself the question, if success and acclaim isn’t the point of all this, what is?

I’m still trying to answer that for myself, but it seems to have something to do with these things.

  • A commitment to personal and spiritual growth.
  • Trying to be a good husband, father and friend.
  • Attempting to use my work to serve, rather than to feather my own proverbial nest.

I’m not completely naïve. As a practical matter, we still need to eat, pay mortgages and help pay for college and for medical insurance. I have never turned down a royalty check for a book, so far as I recall. In fact, what we do in life might not change at all. It’s the why. And it seems that all the energy I used to channel into taming my demons has been put to much better use being more freely creative, and yes, productive.

In the meantime, I’ve awoken to mountain vistas, storm clouds over the ocean, quiet moments when the sunrises, long naps, Melissa McCarthy movies, guitar and singing and yes, Frisbee with the dog.

Not fool’s gold, it turns out, but the real thing.

Meanwhile, at Yale, administrators struggle to find a room large enough for what has become known as “the happiness class.” It’s the largest class in Yale’s 300-year history.

“So many students have told (Professor Santos) the class changed their lives,” the Post story said.

“If you’re really grateful, show me that,” she told them. “Change the culture.”

The story ended with a scene from the last class of the semester.

“Let’s do this!” Santos said.

“Good Life (by Kanye West) began blasting into Woolsey Hall, and more than a thousand Yalies stood up, some laughing, some crying, all applauding. Finals were happening, papers were due, internships and jobs were imminent. Later, they would pour out into the sunshine, hurrying to other classes or exams or the library, and Santos would hug her husband and promise him a date night. But for now students stood and clapped and clapped and clapped, beaming, drowning out even Kanye with their standing ovation. As if they had nothing but time.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Fred Rogers, Richard Rohr And The Truth About Anger

This passage from the great Catholic writer Richard Rohr really struck me when I read it a few days ago:

“Anger is good and very necessary to protect the appropriate boundaries of self and others. I would much sooner live with a person who is free to get fully angry, and also free to move beyond that same anger, than with a negative person who is hard-wired with resentments and pre-existing judgments. Their anger is so well hidden and denied — even from themselves — that it never comes up for the fresh air of love, conversation, and needed forgiveness.”

Richard Rohr.
Richard Rohr.

Rohr’s words reminded me of the day many years ago when a good friend said this to me: “There is a lot of anger in you.” She said it kindly, as an observation not an accusation, but I was stunned nonetheless.

From the time of my boyhood, my persona of choice was the “good guy.” I tried to wrest security and satisfaction from life by pleasing others, often at the expense of myself, and anger just did not fit that schtick. So I repressed my rage and turned my anger in on myself. The result was a deep and chronic depression that by early adulthood threatened to consume me.

I have had a lot of company in this regard. In our recent book on grief, Dr. Patrick O’Malley and I write about the “culture of positivity,” defined by one psychologist as “the widespread social practice of eliminating any attitude and utterance that doesn’t have an uplifting effect on one’s mood and those around them.

“The pressure to think positive pervades our everyday language and practices. It’s the reflexive response, ‘Put on a happy face,’ if we are not smiling. ‘Think cheerful thoughts and good things will happen.’ We feel pressure to display a pleasant countenance even if it is insincere. And we often feel guilty if we’re not quite able to don that cloak. The underlying belief, it seems, is that hurt and discontent can be done away with simply by acting as though it isn’t there.”

Which is crap, of course. But that cultural ethos made it safer for me to turn my anger inward toward my own destruction than acknowledge it as a normal and yes, necessary, part of my humanity.

Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.
Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.

Fred Rogers was among those who led me toward truth and healing. I believe one of the most profoundly helpful things Mister Rogers ever said was this:

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. (All feelings, anger, sadness, rage.) They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

Fred’s words about his own anger were an important part of our first face-to-face conversation. That day in October 1995, sitting in his small office in Pittsburgh, he began to share about his long-time friend, Jim Stumbaugh, who had died of cancer a few weeks before. Fred said he was angry at the disease.

“With grief there is, inevitably, some times of anger and, you know, God can take our anger,” Fred said. “I think God respects the fact that we would share a whole gamut of feelings. I’m a real person. I think kids understand that.

“I’ve told the children there are many things you can do with your feelings that don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, particularly the so called ‘negative’ feelings, anger, sadness and rage. If there is one service I feel television could offer in this world, it would be to give as many examples as possible of people expressing their anger in healthy ways. We see just the opposite on television.”

Hence the title of one of Fred’s most important songs.

“What do you do with the mad you feel (when you feel so mad you can bite?)”

Pound on dough or clay, the song suggests, or organize a game of tag.

I’m a little old for tag, (or maybe I’m not). But I have long come to accept that on that day long ago, my friend was right about my anger, however deeply buried it might have been at the time. The biggest part of my journey of healing over the decades has been first acknowledging, then embracing my anger and rage. Now, instead of turning that dark energy inward, I pour it out in journals, share it with trusted others and try to express it in ways that doesn’t hurt others, though I’m not always successful in that regard.

Some days, during my quiet time in the morning, I simply try to tune into a small voice inside me that says, “You’re really angry today, you’re really hurting.” No judgment there, just self-compassion. Or some days my prayer is simply this, “God, I’m really, really angry.”

And I agree with Fred. God can take it.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Simple Secret To Supporting A Grieving Person: Human Presence

At a speaking engagement of mine a few months back, a woman in the audience said something that I will never forget. She had lost her spouse more than a year before and continued to grieve deeply. But something in her suffering had shifted, she said.

“I used to see grief as an enemy,” she said. “After reading your book, I see grief as a companion.”

She referred to “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” which I co-authored with Fort Worth, Texas, grief therapist Patrick O’Malley. In it we tried to normalize grief, to assure readers that bereavement does not conform to steps or stages, that every person’s grief is unique, that grief is not a pathology, a mental illness or a sign of weakness. Ultimately it is an expression of love, how we often redefine a relationship with the person we have lost. The intensity and duration of grief, Patrick tells readers based on his long personal and professional experience, is commensurate with the depth of love for the person now gone.

But though tried to provide comfort and assurance to those who grieve, the book also seeks to educate those who seek to support the bereaved. The short answer is this: To truly support a grieving person, you must willingly enter into his or her pain.

We quote the great Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen:

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

“This is a tall order if there ever was one,” Patrick says in our book. “How, exactly, do you show true compassion for a grieving person? Here are a few ideas.

“Show up at the house, visitation or funeral; express simple words of sorrow; and then let the mourning person dictate what happens next. She may open her arms for a hug, or she may clearly want to keep people at a distance. He may be calm or agitated. She may be jovial or weeping. He may want to talk about his loss or about baseball. She may be angry or grateful. Be with them wherever they are.

“I define intimacy as truly knowing another person and being known. Being with a person in grief is a unique, one-way intimacy. You are there to know the grieving person but not to make him or her feel better. Don’t try to move the bereaved from one emotional place to another to make yourself comfortable. Be with them without an agenda. You may be more comfortable with a person’s anger than with their silence, or you may rather talk about sports than the accident — but this isn’t about you.

“Listen with your eyes and respond with nods that convey, “I get it.”

It is indeed a tall order, but a simple one. This is another way of putting it: Just be present. Fred Rogers demonstrated every day of his life the enormous power of pure human presence — humanity without expectation, judgement or agenda —even in the most difficult of times, particularly in the most difficult of times.