What if we went back to the basics and focused again on the Golden Rule?
This past January’s events in Washington D.C., the continuing politicization and violence around vaccinations and masks really begs the question, doesn’t it? Sunday schools taught it; politicians have quoted it; parents repeated it. The words have hung in public spaces — a kind of pluralistic and even secular creed — Do Unto Others. It’s clear and plain in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” or as The Message (Eugene Peterson) translates it: “Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior- Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them!” What if we all just simply tried living by the Golden Rule again?
If we have trouble trying to live it out ourselves, maybe we could think of someone who exemplified and lived out this ancient code of conduct and try to follow their example. It might be a parent, a colleague, a friend, a teacher, a pastor, a neighbor, a fellow church member or even a boss. Somewhere in your life’s journey there’s been a person who rose above everyone else with the level of kindness they showed.
Who’s the kindest person you know? Someone who really exudes “nice.” Who is always willing to help without a complaint. Who offers a smile and an encouraging word. One of the kindest persons I have seen is Fred Rogers. “Mister Rogers,” as he’s known to countless children (and adults!) seemed to be the manifestation of kindness. There was a national buzz about a year ago about Fred Rogers with the release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as our favorite next-door neighbor. The movie is loosely based upon an Esquire profile of Fred Rogers “Can You Say…Hero?” done by Tom Junod back in 1998. I encourage you to read that article and then see the movie. Fred’s wife, Joanne, recently passed away and once again his name, work and mission is being lifted up as something we should all aspire to be like.
His slow, quiet, and patient demeanor and his way of accepting everyone were indicators of what a kind man he was. He did the same small good thing for a very long time. But Mister Rogers the celebrity — who by all accounts was the same as Fred Rogers the man — had to work at it. Every day. He admitted as much in his counsel to everyone about what it takes to build relationships:
“Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain. We need to accept the fact that it’s not in the power of any human being to provide all these things all the time. For any of us, mutually caring relationships will also always include some measure of unkindness and impatience, intolerance, pessimism, envy, self-doubt, and disappointment.”
In the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers. Now, if you know anything about the actor Tom Hanks, it’s that he is widely considered one of the kindest people in show business. So much so that, according to a recent New York Times article, a journalist who attended a panel suggested that Tom Hanks is just playing Tom Hanks, but “slower.”
“But the slowness of Fred Rogers — the un-self-conscious, considered slowness — was hard, Hanks said. It felt ridiculous when he first tried it out. He studied hours of tapes, because sometimes he couldn’t imagine that he was supposed to go this slowly… ‘It’s a combination of procedure and behavior that was singularly Fred Rogers.’”
But there’s something to that notion of needing to slow down. If the worldwide pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are going way too fast. When everything is calling us to go faster (work, technology, calendars, etc), perhaps we all could simply slow down the brakes, pause and appreciate. When you need to weigh things in your mind, you need peace and solitude to allow that to happen. And you need to choose deliberately what you’ll do. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Maybe when we slow down we can see each other as “people” and not things; we can interact with one another instead of just swiping or scrolling on to the next thing.
It’s up to each and every one of us how we choose to respond in life’s situations. Every situation involves some level of emotion, and it’s easy to simply react in the moment. But Mister Rogers, in his deliberate, reflective way, at times like these, would ask himself one simple question that guided his response: “What would be the kindest choice?”
Kindness doesn’t happen unintentionally. You need to direct yourself there. And in those quiet moments of reflection, consider how those on the other end of your response might react. What would our lives (and even world) look like if we all asked that question of ourselves each day: What would be the kindest choice? Would we engage in road rage? Would we shout and scream at our spouse and / or kids? Would we get into shouting matches over differences in political ideologies? Would we give the silent treatment to family members or friends who seemed to have wronged us? Would we gossip and talk ill of others? Would we not forgive?
If you’re unkind or abrupt, how will that ripple effect into other people’s lives? I often ponder what Anna, Peter and Liam think of my use of words and how that impacts the way they think about the world or themselves and how they in turn will use words with others. At times I let my impatience and anger get the best of me. I may take out things unfairly on them or others for something that was my own fault. I know I fail at times with Amy being short and curt instead of thinking thoughtfully through my words weighing how they will affect her. Names do hurt. Our word choice can have lasting intentional or unintentional consequences. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
Kindness. Empathy. Patience. These are some of the tenets that guided Mister Rogers every day. And they can guide us too. Fred had many great quotes about life, faith, kindness and love. Once he quipped, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” It sounds so elementary and so basic and yet isn’t a heavy dose of kindness what we all could put forth in this world?
Some say he was quirky and odd wearing the cardigan sweaters and trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t. I don’t think he was fake. He was someone who believed in helping children and making a positive impact in their lives. He impacted mine. I couldn’t wait as a little boy to see what next adventure he would take me on. I couldn’t wait to go to the land of “Make-Believe” on Trolley. I couldn’t wait for Mr. Rogers to say those precious words to me (and everyone else): You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are. And now I see Anna and Peter hearing those words from Daniel Tiger, the cartoon version of Mister Rogers. The cycle of kindness can carry on, dear friends.
So, what would be the kindest choice for me and you today? It’s a question that should be on our mirrors, on our phones and devices, in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in our churches, in our homes and in our neighborhoods. In this crazy world of fake news, sensationalism, selfishness, getting ahead, individualism and people willingly doing what they know they should not…what if we all became the heroes Fred Rogers thought we were and could be by simply living the Golden Rule and being kind? It actually works. His life was proof of it. And I know another person whom Fred adored that lived with kindness, hope and peace: Jesus Christ. Try it. Practice asking the question each day: What would be the kindest choice? And then thoughtfully and intentionally do it. What might be the kindest choice with a fellow church member, neighbor, co-worker, spouse, child or friend? How might we as a church family grow kindness together and in the larger community?
As we venture forward in the midst of this unsettling on-going pandemic, perhaps we can turn again to an old friend and neighbor whose niceness is available and free to all of us. Darkness is overcome by the light and we can reflect that light in our words and actions. It’s really not that hard. What would be the kindest choice? Or to put it another way: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for teaching us kindness is really the only way to live a life worth living. Continue to Rest in Peace, dear neighbor.