Mister Rogers on Faithfulness in Little Things
This month marked the 50th anniversary of a Saturn V rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon. Recently The Harris Poll surveyed a total of 3,000 children in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom about their attitudes toward and knowledge of space. The result? At least for Western countries, kids today, by three to one, would sooner aspire to be a YouTube star than aim for the moon. They answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Astronaut is a popular answer in China, whereas the most popular answer in the UK and US is “Blogger/YouTuber.”
Becoming an astronaut is hardly the fast trek to fame, but YouTube can make you famous overnight, and ours is a moment when fame and celebrity, even for the wrong reasons, are often seen as the biggest sign of success. The taste for the quiet, long haul and the patient unsung slog is often replaced with a rapacious hankering after notoriety, a big online following, YouTube fame.
His heroic life attests to the power of faithfulness in the small things—like donning his sweater and sneakers.
Quiet faithfulness doing small things is out of fashion, but it was exactly what Fred Rogers did his whole life through. He never saw television as a way to self-aggrandize or puff himself up. He was notoriously hard to interview because invariably he started interviewing the journalist out of his genuine curiosity about others. He would come to see his celebrity as a chance to do more good in the world, but never as an end in itself.
Fred was faithful in the little things, a particularly good model of consistently doing the right little things—that added up to a lot.
One of those who once interviewed him was Tom Junod—their friendship is the subject of the movie starring Tom Hanks coming out this November. Tom was assigned to do a feature on Fred, and plenty warned Fred about Junod’s reputation as the bad boy journalist who had betrayed Kevin Costner’s trust. Junod admits he didn’t know if he could trust himself anymore as he headed to Pittsburgh to meet with the iconic patron saint of prepubescence. Fred nevertheless gave him his trust. Five minutes into the interview Fred had Tom sharing details of a childhood toy that had meant so much to him when he was little; then Tom was suddenly blinded by the flash of a bulb as Fred took a picture of him like he did with all his new friends. Needless to say, Fred’s effortless enchantments rendered Tom powerless, like countless others, and Tom wound up writing a classic piece about Fred as a hero.
Tom’s Esquire piece began with these words: “Fred Rogers has been doing the same small good thing for a very long time.” It went on to recount how, on December 1, 1997, a boy, no longer little, told his friends to watch out, that he was going to do something “really big” the next day at school. The next day he took his gun, ammo, and earplugs and shot eight classmates gathered for a prayer meeting. Three died. The shootings took place in West Paducah, Kentucky, and when Mister Rogers heard about them, he said, “Oh, wouldn't the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow,’” and he decided to dedicate a week of the Neighborhood to the theme “Little and Big.”
Maybe it’s my overactive imagination, the eerie presence of his specter about the place, or a combination of both, but the town of Fred’s original real-life neighborhood of Latrobe, Pennsylvania captures something about him. A slice of vintage Americana forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh, replete with large porches and a small town main street, gave him his start. Something even about the land and plush region in which it’s found reflects a feature of his personality. The very geography of the place—its slow grass-carpeted slopes, especially under the canopy of blue sky on a clear day—seems to match the quiet demeanor and gentle disposition of the great man who was content to do the same small good things for a very long time.
His heroic life attests to the power of faithfulness in the small things—like donning his sweater and sneakers. Would that there were more so content with quiet faithfulness. William James once seemed to grasp the vacuity of the big things by comparison when he wrote, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.”
A high school student once wrote and asked, “Dear Mister Rogers, what was the greatest event in American history?” Fred responded, “I can’t say. However, I suspect that like so many ‘great’ events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history). The really important ‘great’ things are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always ‘in the wings.’ That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.”
Fred’s example offers nothing less than a transvaluation of our reigning values of privileging personality over character, profits over people, image over substance, style over content, pride over humility—and aspiring to be stars rather than reaching for them. Luke the apostle tells us that whoever is faithful with very little will also be faithful with much, and Fred’s an example of how that can work. Although he aspired only to be a good neighbor, he eventually became a surrogate father to us all.
With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He developed two subsequent books with Walls. The second book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, critiques naturalistic ethics. The third book, The Moral Argument: A History, chronicles the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. It releases October 1, 2019. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Rawlings School of Divinity in Lynchburg, VA.