What I Learned From Mr. Rogers About Disrupting While Being Disrupted
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When faced with constant uncertainty, it’s really easy to get off track — to lose confidence in yourself, in your mission, in your work and in the promise of what the future holds. When the only way to the other side of this pandemic is through it, how can disrupters use uncertainty to help light a path toward progress and positivity? The answer might come from a very familiar source, someone who guided me personally when I was 5 and now continues to at 50.
On my last flight home after a speaking gig before COVID-19, I watched the movie A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood, about Mr. Rogers’s life as seen through the relationship he cultivated with a very wounded, angry-at-life reporter named Lloyd Vogel. There was one scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers, sitting across from Lloyd in a restaurant booth, suggests that they sit in complete silence, and he encourages Lloyd to think about all of the people who have had an impact on his life. Their fellow diners soon go silent and join in. In fact, the movie stays silent, allowing those of us viewing to also consider the people who have impacted us throughout our lives.
I found myself thinking about the people I liked, people I didn’t like, people who were nice to me, people who were mean to me, people who were indifferent to me. I didn’t even try to stop the tears as I realized what Mr. Rogers was telling all of us. During the darkest of times with the worst scenarios we can imagine, everything in our lives — even the most difficult and hurtful of interactions that leave us bitter — has made us who we are.
The thing is, Mr. Rogers, a spiritual and positive man, had his share of daily heartache and struggles, of deep pain seeded from his past. He was like everyone one of us, and yet he always understood the importance of humanity and what that can look like even when faced with cruelty, negativity, times of lost control and clarity and feelings of desperation and hopelessness.
Mr. Rogers reminded me that it takes practice to move past labels like "good," "bad, "negative" or "positive." By focusing on how each person and each experience has shaped what we believe, what we have learned, what we got to do, who we got to meet and where we got to go, everything changes. It is up to us to become aware of the beautiful impact of our experiences, good or bad, as part of the fabric of our lives.
All of a sudden, I found myself accepting the behaviors that shaped me — including my own, the things that happened as part of my life story — and then I felt gratitude. Yes, gratitude for the bullying I experienced most of my K-12 school years. (Throughout elementary, junior high and high school, I was an overweight, loud girl who could not stop myself from disrupting things that bothered me. I was fair game.) And gratitude for the bad decisions I have made, the support I have received from so many people and the support I was able to give. I felt surrounded by love, by purpose, by an unwavering understanding (still with me weeks later) that I am not walking alone and that, yes, things do pass, and they also serve a purpose. For me, that purpose is to make decisions about what to do, what to say, who to be with and where to go. This is true in a pandemic and true when the biggest news story is about a guy being interviewed on BBC only to be interrupted by his adorable child.
Many of us are facing extreme uncertainty in our physical, financial and mental health. These are the scariest of times, and no one is immune. But the good news is you can be someone else's Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers understood that the first stage in getting past anything that stops us from living the best versions of ourselves is to accept reality. To live with sadness or happiness without judging or justifying our feelings. With this internal and external acceptance, we have the foundation to get out of our own way, to focus on what we can do versus what we wish we could. We can focus on paths together instead of the roads that lead us apart. We can meet people where they are in their journeys. We can take a minute a day to sit in silence and think about the people who have made an impact on our lives. And we can always find a minute to sit with someone as they process their own thoughts, their own feelings of despair, frustration, anger and fear so that they can create a new reality for themselves.
From that booth in that restaurant, Mr. Rogers showed us that we can all start with just one minute of quiet togetherness in individual thought.