For me the most significant moment of the film was a scene in a restaurant in which Rogers invites the journalist to be silent for a minute and think of those who had loved him into (or perhaps it was in) life. Not only did the restaurant go silent but so too did the cinema. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a film where that happened. The cinema was packed and people sat in silence for a full minute – no rustling of papers, no coughing or spluttering. Just silence - and the woman beside me could be seen brushing a tear from her eye. I’m sure everyone in the cinema was thinking of those who had loved them into life and responding in different ways.
The story of the film was about reconciliation but it struck me that the work of Fred Rogers, who was an ordained pastor and saw his work as ministry, was about developing emotional intelligence in children through his programme and adults through his conversations and love. There’s a scene in the film, taken straight out of one of Rogers’ TV programmes when he tries to put up a tent but fails miserably. When asked why he didn’t get the tent put up before filming he replied that it was the failure to put up the tent that was the point of the programme. It was good for children to learn that sometimes things went wrong and that it was ok to ask for help. It so happens that the day after I saw the film I was in a situation of going to a show in a theatre where those attending were kept standing outside – in the cold and the rain – for an hour only to be told the show had been cancelled. I was still in the mood of the film so found myself quite unperturbed thinking “well, these things happen” though those around me were quite angry and one little family encouraged the children to boo and agitate to get inside. It was easy to imagine how Mr Rogers would have responded to that.
It seems to be a human trait to expect everything in life to go the way we want. Sometimes we’re disturbed by trivial events, sometimes by more serious events such as illness, death, loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship. These moments are a challenge and often raise the question why should this happen to me. Rabbi Harold Kushner faced this head on when his son died. He grappled with it and wrote a book “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People”. The answer was because they do. These events are part and parcel of what it means to be human and we need a certain amount of emotional intelligence to cope with them. And it was emotional intelligence that Fred Rogers was teaching and developing through his television programme as well as the values of caring for our neighbour and neighbourhood which in this day and age is the very cosmos we live in.
It so happened that I’d been thinking of emotional intelligence after a dialogue event with two visitors who’d come to speak at Holocaust Memorial events in Scotland. Part of the dialogue was to discuss how we would respond to hate speech and hate action if we were to witness it. It occurred to me that conflicts, genocides, wars are often caused by hate, fear, suspicion – emotions often left below the surface and not acknowledged or understood. And because they’re not acknowledged they’re not managed positively or communicated effectively in ways to defuse conflict. It seems to me that emotional intelligence can well be part of the work of interreligious dialogue while recognising of course the part played by power and greed on the part of governments whom it behoves to keep groups in conflict for their own ends and outcomes.