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 — 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 — Barbara Bush And The Aspiration To Goodness

My wife and I spent a healing hour watching the news Tuesday night. When was the last time anyone could say that?

The topic, of course, was the passing of former First Lady Barbara Bush at age 92. As the tributes poured in, how nice it was to be reminded that her human greatness did not derive from her role as matriarch of a political dynasty. Instead it was her commitment to family and friends, her wisdom, humor, strength, kindness and optimism through decades of triumph and tragedy. It was how she embodied the conviction that honor and service are the noblest of things.

Fred Rogers said, and I think it’s true, that it’s hard to make goodness attractive. But that was certainly never a problem for him, and never for Mrs. Bush. And the recent and ongoing celebration of Fred’s greatness, and the tributes to Barbara Bush are all the more affecting because of the bilious, vulgar, and spiritually corrosive nature of current times.

In my days as a high school hockey coach, I tried to impress upon my players the importance of sportsmanship, integrity, decency and kindness — not as abstract ideals but as things essential to success, peace and true happiness in life. I have often thought of coaches today, teachers and parents of young children who face terrible headwinds as they try to instill those values.

Not that any of us are perfect. Far from it. Every day I fall short of the person I hope to be. But that’s not the point. The point is that we try our best to be good to one another. However often we fail, it is the aspiration toward our higher natures and better angels that I believe is the highest calling in life.

Barbara Bush reminded us of that in her life, and now in her death. For that I am grateful.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Ten Years of ‘I’m Proud Of You’

“I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” was first published 10 years ago this August. These seem like good days to reread it — for the first time. Also, there have been some significant challenges this year for the people I love, and for me, and, frankly, I just want to see him again and hear his voice. I’ll share some here as read.

The book begins in another difficult season, the holidays of 1997, when I confessed to Fred something that caused great pain and shame. Could he be proud of a man like that? As many of you know, this is how he responded:

“Tim, please know that I will never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I will never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I’d get in my car drive to your house, knock on your door, and, when you answered I’d hug you tight.

“You are a beautiful person inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain. … As for suffering; I believe that there are fewer people that ever who can escape major suffering in this life. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted.

“Our trust and affection run very deep. You know you are in my prayers — now and always. If you ever need me you have only to call and I would do my best to get to you, or you to me.

“You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved son.”

This at the moment of my greatest shame. There was indeed a man such as this who walked among us.

(Ten years of “IPOY,” a celebration, featuring the music of Kyle Redd. Come join us on Sept. 6 for a night of love and song at the Live Oak Music Hall in Fort Worth, Texads (www.theliveoak.com.) Doors open at 7, program at 7:30. It’s free!)

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — My Dad, My Hero

Many years ago, my dad and I were driving through the little town in North Dakota where he grew up. I asked him how many times his parents had come to watch him play sports. Dad had been a star football and basketball player in that place.

“Twice,” he answered without hesitation. “My mom came and watched me play basketball twice.”

Clearly, that fact had been on his heart all these years. I pictured him game after game, looking into the stands, waiting for them to come. And the more questions I asked, the more my heart broke.

My dad’s childhood had been one of too much alcohol and too little love. When his dad died, my father, as a teenager, dug the grave because the family didn’t have the money for a gravedigger.

As an adult, I told Fred Rogers that I never believed my father was proud of me. Fred said he would be. Hence the title of the book. But Fred also wanted to know what my father’s childhood had been like. So I started to ask, and the asking changed my life.

I remember how every hockey or baseball game, dad was always there, no matter how busy he might have been at work. How he worked so hard to support a family of seven children. His love and loyalty to my mother. His honesty and integrity. His life was in fact a miracle of honor, especially when you took into account how he had suffered so deeply from the furies of depression and self-doubt that so long had afflicted me. I came to understand that my dad was not this godlike figure, to cast pronouncement on my very being, but just another suffering guy doing his best, just like me.

In his later years, I also came to learn of his deeply tender and true heart — and the depths of his love for me. I guess he just hadn’t been able to show it in ways that could fully understand. My mom told us that after we had grown and left home, after our visits back he would sit in his rocking chair and cry for hours.

Isn’t it amazing how, over the years, my dad had become one of my greatest heroes. When he died, five years ago last week, my heart, once so full of angst, felt only the purest form of sorrow.

He grows in my heart every passing year. This Father’s Day, damn, I miss my dad.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Making A Difference

A few weeks ago, I opened a drawer at home and there it was, my 40th birthday present from Fred Rogers. We had moved a couple of times, so it had been tucked away and I had not seen or thought of it for at least a couple of years. (My 40th was eighteen years ago.)

It brought back the night, I guess it was in 1997, when I was visiting Mister Rogers’ home in Pittsburgh, and noticed a crystal starfish in his curio cabinet. He said it had been a gift to him from Joan Kroc, another friend and the owner of McDonald’s hamburgers.

I asked Fred if he had heard the starfish story. He might have just been being polite, but he said he had not. So, I shared it with him.

_ _ _

After a huge storm, a man walked alone on a beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up into the sand. In the distance, he saw another man bending to grab something, then hurling whatever it was back into the water. When the first man grew closer, he saw that the second man was gathering starfish, one by one, and throwing them back into the sea.

“What on earth are you doing?” the first man said.

“If these starfish don’t get back into the water, they’ll die,” the second man answered.

“But there are thousands of starfish on the beach,” the first man said. “What possible difference could it make?”

“To this one,” the second man said, looking down at the starfish he held in his hands, “It makes all the difference in the world.”

_ _ _

“Isn’t that wonderful,” Fred said when I had finished. “That one starfish.”

Several months later, Fred sounded almost giddy when he called me at home.

“I’ve found the perfect birthday present for you,” he said. “It should come in the mail in a few days. Of course, I can’t give you a hint.”

I opened the box when it arrived, and there it was. The starfish is hidden away no longer.

And I remember this, another cherished message from Fred.

“When I look at our starfish I not only think of Joan who gave it to us, but I think of you who gives it extra special meaning. You told me what a difference it made for that one person to save that one starfish. Well, you and I make a similar difference in each other’s lives. … You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved son.”