He dedicated his time on Earth to being a living model of that gentleness and offering that gentleness in service of the reality at the core of all of us: our vulnerability, interdependence and hunger for caring connection with others. We still haven’t garnered all we can learn from his life, but he is widely recognized as a great man. And yet, in his humility, gentleness, and focus upon children and community, he so little resembles anything we usually associate with such greatness.
What inspires me to call attention to Mr. Rogers’ model today is the thought that Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood might well be described as a great big family. And the call Mr. Rogers makes in his speech at his 1999 induction into the television hall of fame to the members of his television family I believe applies to mediation. Mr. Rogers encouraged everyone working in TV to live in dedication to the well-being of each member in the family of our society. This strikes me as essentially the same call that mediation makes to family members going through change and conflict: Tend to each other’s core needs, remember all the ways they have nurtured your inner goodness and well-being, and remember that your life’s meaning depends on the service you provide others in connecting with the goodness in life.
Here is some of what Mr. Rogers says in his 1999 remarks:
“I feel like those of us in television are chosen to be servants . … We are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen day and night….
Life isn’t cheap. It’s the greatest mystery of any millennium and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that, to show and tell what the goodness in life is all about.
But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can to bring courage to those whose lives move close to our own, by treating our neighbor at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything we produce.
Who in your life has been such a servant to you? Who has helped you love the good that grows within you? Let’s just take ten seconds to think of some of those people who have loved us and wanted what was best for us in life. Those who have encouraged us to become who we are tonight. …
How pleased those people must be to know that you thought of them right now. We only have one life on Earth and through television we make the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative and imaginative ways….”
If you watch the video provided, you will be struck by the importance of tending to the needs of those in our neighborhood or family who must navigate disabilities. You will also be struck by the profound and unrealized potential of television to better serve and cherish the life of our society. These are extremely important values to be advanced in our society.
But what I also hear is Mr. Rogers talking as though to families in mediation, saying: Remember these people with whom you share conflict have many times given you selfless love. Remember that your children are absorbing the value you accord to each other’s well-being, learning to either cherish or demean the deeper needs of others. Remember that you are chosen to have the honor of a meaningful life that serves others at least as well as you would like to be served. And remember that you can bring courage to the lives that move near your own by showing up in mediation with the courage of gentleness and kindness even when you yourself feel extremely vulnerable.
To often in our litigious society, I see people in conflict lose their compassion and inflict wounds upon each other in a disoriented scramble to find their place of power and security. But the power and security of that place is only momentary and is relative. It does not survive exposure to the broader realities of life. And we soon see all too plainly that the person standing in that place is not our better selves, is not who we wanted to be, and then we carry around that disappointment in ourselves, whether or not we can acknowledge it and take responsibility for it, and we feel that disappointment as pain we don’t know how to name or resolve. The whole thing begins to feel very cheap. We feel as though we traded our chance to be proud of ourselves and to surround ourselves with a neighborhood, family and community that cherishes our goodness. And we made this sacrifice for the sake of something we were fighting over that we no longer even remember what it was.
For those who are navigating emotionally triggering family conflicts, I, like everyone, have known my share of such conflicts and I extend to you the hope that, first, you will be compassionate toward yourself if you are feeling disappointment in yourself over the way you have acted in this conflict. We all struggle under such circumstances and what matters is not flawless behavior, but whether or not we find our way to eventually connect with each other with kindness and caring in a reliable way.
Second, I encourage you to come to mediation mindful of the example of Mr. Rogers’ great life, which was not lived in service of self-sacrifice or sacrifice of anyone’s deeper needs including those of the servant, but which found in courageous service to the needs of others there was the most opportunity to also meet his own deepest needs as well.
Where everyone in a family conflict comes to the table intent on understanding and finding a way to meet each other’s deeper needs, solutions are always possible and a great deal of healing inevitably results.