A Return to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: How Early Stories Form Us

By the time I got to the theater to see the new documentary on the life and work of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was fully prepared to weep my way through the whole film. The movie has inspired a number of reviews that have morphed into personal reflections on love and kindness, along with social media posts where people see the film as a mirror, holding up some great truth about their own heart. I was so ready for this kind of transformative experience that I made sure I watched the movie seated between two friends who are licensed therapists—just in case things got too real.

As someone who grew up with Mr. Rogers sending me off to school and welcoming me home, I did experience a wave of nostalgia and gratitude for what it meant as a child to have his warm presence show up in our living room. I did shed a few tears along the way, particularly during the last ten minutes of the movie when the film turns the camera around and invites viewers to join in on the story in a great way that I won’t spoil. And I will probably need a few days to unpack just how powerful an icon of kindness can be in a world of division and how much I want my own life to be like that in any little measure I can muster.

But I also watched the film as part of a company that produces short and long form documentaries and as someone who wants to help organizations live and tell transformative stories.

So, tissues aside, here are a few professional takeaways from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and affirmations for the work we do here at Rebel:

Our experiences as children, and the emotions surrounding them, form us and stay with us for a very long time. This simple truth could transform the way companies think of Human Resources. We say this at the start of our Story Workshops: Our playground selves are with us in every meeting we go to. You get to see this truth in the work of Fred Rogers himself, and in the conversations going on around the movie. When we work, we are working things out. We are operating from the resources we developed as kids. We may not always have the language to articulate this truth, but it’s sitting right there in the middle of every interaction we have with co-workers, clients, and computer screens.

Stories are a way to work through those emotions and experiences and to give them greater meaning.  My favorite moment of every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the train ride into the land of Make Believe. It was a place where the puppets living in castles could play out the drama of real-life and come to conclusions about how children should respond to reality. I remember feeling freed by this to see Story as a place of healing and wisdom. As the documentary details, so did the people behind the puppets and cameras. When we learn to use Stories, fictional or otherwise, we are learning how to talk about the reality of our own lives.

Good stories can carve out new ways of being in the world. Through the simple rituals of sweater-changing, shoe-tying, songwriting, and storytelling, Fred Rogers gave brand new meaning to what it means to be a neighbor. He took this language and built an ethics of kindness and openness. Though we may not regularly revisit the episodes of his show, we remember the meaning and we hold this out in front of us as a way to walk through worlds we don’t always understand, even as adults. Or, especially, as adults.