Fred Rogers was fond of saying that the most profound and meaningful moments in life rarely happen in the spotlight, that they tended to occur off stage, in quiet moments between people.
In 2002, in an elaborate ceremony in the White House, President George Bush hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Fred’s neck, but Mister Rogers later told me that his favorite moment of the day was a quiet conversation he had with a young soldier he met just before.
Another story, told recently by another friend, Kit Lisle, brought all this to mind. It came from a recent afternoon at a church in Harrisburg, Pa. In the first part of the program that day, my friends Tom Kaden and Michael Gingerich shared the story of their nonprofit, Someone To Tell It To, which is a profound invitation to the world, a beckoning to share the often-heavy burdens of life, even (particularly) the ugliest, most difficult. I told the story of my friendship with Fred, whose life was also the same kind of invitation. After an intermission, the nine-person cast of “This is My Brave” took the stage, sharing their stories of mental illness in essay and song. Kit’s 15 year-old daughter, Phoebe, was one of the cast members, so artful and courageous. Then Kit himself stood and bared the rawest parts of his soul. Amazing stuff.
Kit’s recent email has to do with sacred moments from that day, again, off stage. He graciously has allowed me to share them here.
“At the show in Harrisburg, in the men’s room of all places, I met an elderly gentleman. He was clearly moved by what he was hearing and we struck up a conversation. With tears forming in his eyes, he relayed the details of the suicides, several years apart, of his two aunts. He was only a child at the time. This was in the late 1930s / early 1940s. But the experience of shame, guilt, bearing the burden of hiding the family secret and sweeping it all under the carpet — never to be addressed — apparently impacted him greatly.
“He talked for perhaps 10 minutes, all in the safe and cozy confines of the men’s room. I asked him what motivated him to join us for the event. ‘Oh, I’m just a volunteer here at the church. … It was just by happenstance that I am here, listening to these stories!’ We then shook hands and parted ways, as the intermission was ending and it was almost time for the Brave cast to begin their segment.
“Afterwards, he came up to me, again with tears welling up in his eyes. He said that he felt silly that he had burdened me with his insignificant story while I was there to share my own for the group at large (at the time we originally met, he didn’t realize that I was a cast member.)
“Of course, I reassured him that his story was far from silly and that the whole purpose of the event was to encourage people to share their own stories just as he had. He hugged me and we thanked each other for sharing. He seemed delighted, pleasantly surprised, actually, that as a society we have finally advanced to the point of being able to share, openly, our stories of pain and suffering related to mental illness. I would suspect that he relayed his experience (and story) that day with his own family.
“I’m proud to be a part of our big picture story — as it slowly unfolds. We are helping to speed up the process of change! Thanks for the opportunity to be a part of it.”
I’m proud to be a part of that big picture, too. So are you!!