Thursday, March 12, 2015

Discovering Truth Will Make Me Free

I've long held Mr. Rogers up in front of me as a sort of lantern, not just in my work with children, but while going through the dark parts of life in general. He was not the first person to understand the emotional lives of children, but no one has ever been able to speak so well about the inner child, communicating great truths clearly and simply. 

What many people don't know about him is that he started as a songwriter. It was as a young man with a collection of songs in hand that he first set out to make his mark in the world, and it was his songs that tied his television program together, from the warm embrace of "Won't You Be My Neighbor" through the fond farewell of "It's Such A Good Feeling," and everything in between. Lately, I've been thinking about him in the tradition of American singer/songwriter/storytellers, like the great Woody Guthrie. He wasn't, of course, a troubadour type traveling from town to town. Television anchored him, but when he invited us into his neighborhood each afternoon, you knew you were going to enjoy a half hour of conversation, stories, and songs that both entertained and edified. 

And like all the great ones, the gentle, peaceful, loving Mr. Rogers tried to instill in his audience a sense of our individual power in a world that can sometimes seem overwhelming. He taught a generation of young children, now adults in the prime of life, that it isn't just okay to be yourself, but necessary.

I'm still myself,
I'm still myself,
I'm still myself inside.
(from "I'm Still Myself Inside)

What a strong place to stand in the world, knowing that however the world changes, whatever is happening, there is still that core of us that remains "myself." What a radical notion, in fact, almost defiant, that powerful statement: "I'm still myself." To a child, to a person who often feels as if you have spent your entire life surrounded by people bent on changing you, dressing you in clothes you do not choose, feeding you food you do not like, making you go here and there on a schedule over which you have no control, teaching you things about which you do not care, this is almost a subversive concept. 

Or what about this from "What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?"

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there's something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

We cannot control our emotions, but we are responsible for who we are and how we behave. We own not only those feelings, but how we respond to those feelings as well. What a remarkable concept to share with young children: what a sense of control it gives us to know that these emotions are not inflicted upon us, but are rather ours to own and ours alone.

If you've got a plan,
Now's the time to try it.
If you've got an airplane,
Fly it.
This is just the day.
It's the day for seeing all there is to see.
It's the day for being just you, just me.
(from "This Is Just The Day")

Think what an amazing concept this is, especially to a child growing up in an era when "asking permission" was paramount. Instead, Mr. Rogers tells children, seize the day, now, "this is just the day."

You are the only one like you.
(from "You Are Special") 

These words from the non-threatening Mr. Rogers, sung in his gentle voice, broadcast to millions of us, form the bedrock of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. His songs are about feelings, yes, but at bottom, each of them are about being true to ourselves, being responsible for ourselves, and being ultimately the boss of ourselves. If these were not radical notions to adults, they certainly were to us children being raised by parents who had come of age during a time of suburban conformity and "the good company man."

I doubt very much that Mr. Rogers set out to teach these particular skills or this particular mindset, but in doing what he did, in understanding children and speaking directly to that "myself inside," he was helping to lay the groundwork for what it takes to be free.

I'm learning to sing a sad song when I'm sad.
I'm learning to say I'm angry when I'm very mad.
I'm learning to shout, I'm getting it out.
I'm happy learning exactly how I feel inside of me.
I'm learning to know the truth.
I'm learning to tell the truth.
Discovering truth will make me free.
(from "The Truth Will Make Me Free")

And when they're all grown up, they'll understand with their souls the singer/songwriter/storytellers who travel with us and among us, reminding us what it takes to be an American:

The state can't give you freedom, and the state can't take it away. You're born with it, like your eyes, like you ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free. ~Utah Phillips

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Samantha Franklin said...

This is golden. As an adult adoptee, it has taken years to find my own truth and embrace who I really am.

Anonymous said...

This really resonates with me at the moment as I attempt to comfort and guide and be there for my amazing 3 year old daughter who is struggling with some big feelings right now.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a Playing to Learn based daycare. Yesterday one my 5 year old girls tattled, "_____ said he's the boss of me!" I gathered my small mixed-aged group of children (2-5 years old) and told them that even though I make some of the safety rules in the classroom, that I am not the boss of them. That we are each our own boss. You can only control what YOU do, not someone else.
They seemed flabbergasted.