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 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.