Recently I watched the excellent documentary of Fred Rogers life titled "Won't You Be My Neighbor".
The overarching theme of his show was that kids are people and they have value because they are people. In his last commencement speech at Dartmouth College in 2002 he quoted the lyrics to a neighbor song.
There’s a neighborhood song that is meant for the child in each of us, and I’d like to give you the words of that song right now. “It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new, I hope that you remember, even when you're feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you, yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.”
He went on to say "And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you." That is a powerful message that comes directly from Jesus. Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. And he gently demonstrated the gospel over 33 years of broadcasting.
"You are special."
There is a narrative in America that says telling kids they are special has ruined our culture. At times I've believed this. The argument goes:
"If we tell people they are wonderful and special just the way they are, then they will be entitled and expect to be treated wonderful and special everywhere they go."
This worldview believes the world is dark, broken, and dangerous. It doesn't care for you and so you must become resilient enough to operate in a world that believes you are nothing.
There is some truth to this pragmatic worldview. We live in a broken and dangerous world. We must be resilient, or we will not be successful. What this worldview is really saying though is:
"You must be resilient or you will not be economically valuable. Because that is the metric that really matters. If you are not able to generate wealth for yourself, your employer, and your country then you are worthless. It is naive and dangerous to tell children they have value before they have done anything of value."
That might strike you as a disgusting worldview, or you may be cheering because someone actually wrote down clearly what you have felt. Let's be generous and examine the underpinning of this view.
Let's assume the best of this view. We are all created by God to be creators. To build, explore, invent, disrupt and change the world for the better. It is those who are resilient that will survive long enough to create lasting change. So we must teach kids to be resilient!
I think that is a generous and accurate examination of the heart of the argument against telling everybody they are special. I think it really comes from a place of care and concern.
So the end game is to teach resilience and motivate kids to become productive adults. I think we can all agree that is a good goal.
Where does resilience come from?
The worldview we've been interrogating would respond that resilience comes from failure. And they're right. Resilience by definition requires failure.
"Resilience: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness."
You can only develop resilience through failure. If you never fail then there is never a reason to be resilient. Grit is forged in the fire of failure. If we constantly rescue children from experiencing failure they will never become resilient. But what drives resilience? Why get back up when you fail?
"I'll prove the world wrong!"
The first source of resilience is the montra:
"I'll prove the world wrong! You say I'm worthless and a failure, but I'll show you! And you will eat your words!" Brene Brown has coined the term "Hustling for your worthiness".
This mantra believes that you must prove to everybody you are something or you will be found out as nothing. It is fueled by fear and shame. Fear of being found out and constant shame that you're not enough. You are not enough to earn love and belonging today because you didn't meet expectations. Let the pain of this failure fuel you to try to be enough tomorrow. And one day you will be enough to be loved and belong. And when that day comes, and you finally earn the acceptance you crave. Then you can throw it back in their faces so they feel the pain too. It is a warped justice fantasy. If you have bought into this system of "Hustling for your worthiness"; it is a slap in the face when someone just expects to be treated with respect without earning it. When a person just assumes belonging and acceptance it feels like a gross presumption.
Presumption: behavior perceived as arrogant, disrespectful, and transgressing the limits of what is permitted or appropriate.
I HAVE HAD TO EARN EVERY INCH OF RESPECT YOU LITTLE TURD!
The rage is real. The emotion is real.
"I have had to prove my worthiness day in and day out! How dare you presume you are something when you are nothing. How dare you feel worthy before it has been earned! You need to feel very small and worthless so that you will be motivated to be productive! Then when you have proved yourself, and put in your time like me you can feel good about yourself."
The problem is that we don't feel good about ourselves. Fear and shame cultivates anxiety and depression not love and belonging. In the justice fantasy we become the rejectors not the accepted.
Love and belonging can never be earned.
You can not produce enough to earn love and belonging for a lifetime. At some point your economic productive output will diminish and become obsolete. If I spend my life hustling for my worthiness then when I am old I will have to write worthiness checks on the achievements of my youth. Rates of loneliness have doubled over the last 50 years. If worthiness was really tied to productivity then wouldn't we expect to see less depression, and loneliness correlating to increased economic productivity in our economy? Instead we see baby boomers delaying retirement. It’s true that some can not afford to retire, but I suspect that for many it is because our culture ties worthiness to what you do rather than who you are.
Mr. Rogers Understood that your worthiness is a constant truth.
"You don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you." - Fred Rogers
Worthiness can't be earned. It has to be exposed. The problem of childhood is not that kids feel too worthy. It's that they don't feel worthy at all. Mr. Rogers got this. He understood that the speed we adults run is a symptom of fear rather than resilience. Kids are slow. So he was slow. In the commencement speech he gifted the audience one minute to remember someone who believed in them. A whole minute of silence where Mr. Rogers didn't say or do anything. True resilience is not built on fear and shame. True resilience is built on love and belonging. I have made a mistake, but I am not a mistake. I will get back up not because I have something to prove, but because that's who I am. I treat others with respect because I am a respectful person. Respect isn't something I trade. It is something that flows from the source of worthiness deep inside me. My worthiness was bestowed to me by God at the moment of my conception. It is guaranteed by the demonstrated love of Jesus on the cross.
In Luke 10 a man comes to Jesus and asks:
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus then tells the story of the good samaritan.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
And then Jesus asks him a question.
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
“You go, and do likewise.” -Jesus
Mr. Rogers took what Jesus said "You go, and do likewise." as a literal command. When Fred Rogers said "Won't you be my neighbor?" he didn't mean won't you be kind to me? Won't you accept me? Won't you love me? He meant it like Jesus did. "Won't you let me be kind to you?", "Won't you discover acceptance here?", "Won't you let me love you?" Because this is what a child needs to become resilient. It's what I need. And I bet it's what you need too.