Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Carrying Out Fred Rogers’ Philosophy of Service to Others

As a T.V personality, Fred Rogers often became a person in which the nation looked to in order to gain wisdom and directions for how to live, how to accept self, and how to treat others (a real life Atticus Finch, right?!) In the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, Morgan Neville focuses on Fred Rogers’ emphasis on serving others; in his T.V. show, Fred Rogers focused on his neighborhood–a place of community, compassion, acceptance, and of giving back.

Sometimes, I think our egos get clouded when we think about service to others. In its true nature, Fred Rogers would argue, that service to others is a completely selfless act–there is no expectation for a return of favor, for an accolade or acknowledgement of your work, for a reward to be given later on–you simply do something for someone else because you recognize their need, you recognize that you can fulfill that need, and so you act; you notice that your neighbors are super busy, you happen to be at the grocery store, and you offer to pick up dinner for them BECAUSE you recognize a need (food), you can fulfill that need (bring good), and you genuinely do it because you want to alleviate some stress of their life.

But, if we act because we want someone to do something for us later on, or we want someone to compliment us, or we want someone to give us a trophy, then we cannot consider that an act of service, but, in actuality, that is still working from selfish motives–because our motives are ego-inflated, we want someone to recognize OUR efforts, we want a RETURN for our work, so we can’t really call that an ‘act of service’ to others. Say, for example, our neighbor happens to be the president of the H.O.A., and we want to get a motion passed to allow clotheslines in the backyards–so, we bring our neighbors dinner because we want them to pass our vote. Or, perhaps we bring them dinner because we want them to select us as homeowners of the month. Or, we bring our neighbors dinner because we heard they just replaced their kitchen cabinets and we are just dying to see inside so we can calculate costs. While the act of service appears to be true and pure, it is actually corrupted by our egos, because our motives ARE self-serving and self-fulfilling.

As a thought experiment for myself, I wanted to brainstorm ways in which I can exemplify this concept of acts of service to others that does not necessarily cost money–I think, so often, when we consider ‘giving back to others’, we think the only way we CAN do that is through monetary funds–sending flowers, buying ice cream or coffee, donating money to a GoFundMe–which is definitely welcome, but perhaps not always the most affordable way to give back to others.

1. Our Time:  We all live hard lives–we all have baggage and wounds that we carry with us, we all have an ever-amounting list of responsibilities and daily tasks, we all have phone calls to make, lunches to attend, cars to fix. Fred Rogers, a T.V. personality and ordained minister, believed in finding ways to preach Christian ideology without the Bible. In our capitalist society, we have this view that our work lives and our privates lives should be held separate–that there are certain behaviors meant for work, and certain behaviors meant for our private lives, and those two spheres look differently. However, as Fred Rogers (and Christian ideology) might point out, we should not be thinking about these spheres as separate, but rather a unified identity, and what I do in my work place should also be the same values I carry into my private life.

As a person who once worked retail, I can understand the feeling of dread when it’s about 10 minutes to closing (you already know you have a stack of laundry and a load of homework to complete tonight), and your manager hands you a basket of items that people throughout the day have picked up and set down in random places; for the person who set down the item, their mentality might be, “this is what they get paid to do for work”, but the Fred Rogers-neighbor mentality might say, “In order to make another person’s life easier, I am going to return this item to where it belongs, because it will take me less time than it will someone else”. Our time is a gift at that we can give our neighbors in order to alleviate their tasks and to make their lives a little lighter.

2. Offer words: Fred Rogers once observed, “Imagine what our real neighbors would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the lack of courtesy, the impatience of today’s world, road rage and even restaurant rage. Sometimes, all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.” One of the reasons I love writing is because I believe words are priceless gifts we can suspend in time and donate to someone else. When I think about my most cherished items, they are not my super fancy yoga mat or my favorite pair of shoes, but rather, the card my boyfriend wrote me, the thank you note a former student sent me, a thoughtful text message my brother once sent me–words are irreplaceable gifts that we can go back at anytime and re-read.

(READ: The Lost Art of Card Writing)

3. Physical Touch: One of my most favorite parts of being a yoga instructor is to offer assists to students. For one, I imagine so many of us who walk around, hunched over, suffering from tight hamstrings and lower back pain, and I think about how necessary the release a physical assist gives to a body to alleviate that tension and tightness. But also, I love giving assists because physical touch is SO important to our happiness, to our state of being, to recognizing ourselves as valuable and living humans. As a very single person, I remember going weeks without touching another human being. Of course, I had human interactions–I had my friends and my family to entertain me–but I might go weeks without being hugged or having physical contact with another human. When we touch others, or are touched ourselves, we are reminded of our shared existence; we can communicate unspoken messages to each other, acknowledge each other’s human presence, show the other person they are seen, heard, valued, and cared for.

Of course, we live in a culture where this concept of ‘physical touch’ is often misconstrued (perhaps you chuckled a little bit when you first read the heading), but there are certainly many non-creepy ways we can physically acknowledge the presence of our neighbors–we can obviously offer a hug, but also pat on the shoulder, lightly squeeze their arm, take their hand, etc. And, if physical touch is not appropriate, we can always give someone a good smile and look in the eyes–for the same reason that this gesture sends that message that, “I acknowledge you, as an individual, and as a valuable person”. The good news is–a hug is silent, it is free, it takes a relatively short amount of time, and can be oh so meaningful.

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