Reflections on Fred Rogers' Healing Power of Presence

Mar 1, 2024
Rachel Hutson

Lately, I’ve been wondering what it was about the presence of Fred Rogers that helped to foster mutuality and connection. 

Throughout my time as a public educator, children and family pastor, and resident hospital chaplain, I have looked to Fred as an exemplar in how to engage and be with those I am seeking to serve. 

I recently spent some time with the Fred Rogers Archive examining sermon notes, journal reflections, and communications. Analyzing Fred’s work and ministry has led me to reflect and analyze my own way of being with others, and with myself. 

Listening to Ourselves and Others 

“Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.” (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, pg. 93)

Upon examining Fred’s journal entries and daily schedules in the Archive, I recognized that he maintained a rigid early morning routine of swimming and praying before the day began in order to cultivate stillness within himself. (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, pg. 7)

Many photos of Fred show him physically leaning towards others with curiosity in his eyes and his mouth closed, yet smiling, as he listened. He did this with Dr. Margaret McFarland and with children in classrooms. He exuded humility and curiosity in his posture of learning. Throughout each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, too, he modeled stillness and pauses in order to provide space for intimacy to occur. 

A photo from the Lynn Johnson Collection, Ohio University Libraries.

This led me to reflect upon the question: How can stillness and curiosity transform us internally and externally? 

Throughout my day to day, I started to incorporate at least ten minutes of silence and stillness in order to pay attention to my own feelings and thoughts. Cultivating that time has allowed me to have the mental and emotional space to differentiate myself and remain genuinely curious about those around me. 

Vulnerability Fosters Connection 

“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and to channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.” (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, pg. 15)

A practice that Fred had throughout his personal correspondence was to exchange and share concerns and feelings. He allowed others to see his humanity in order that they could feel open to share theirs. 

In his song, “The Truth Will Make Me Free,” he gave permission to acknowledge and share honest feelings. In Episode 1647 (Imaginary Friends), he normalized the fact that there are a wide range of emotions that we can all feel. He talked about sadness and anger with the audience as a model and invitation into talking about hard human experiences.

He made me wonder how honesty and humility could bring about deeper connection for ourselves and others. 

As a parent and a children’s pastor, I found it important to start thinking aloud and being honest about my emotions. This vulnerability shifted the perception of me being an all-knowing authority figure to being viewed as another human living and discovering life alongside the children in my life. 

Faith Embraces Mystery 

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, pg. 79)
Fred knew how to listen to the concerns and questions of others, both in his daily life and during episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In Episode 1180, he acknowledged that the news is oftentimes scary and sad. He sang a song called, “Some Things I Don’t Understand” as an acknowledgement of the hard truths that we all wrestle with in life. At the end of that song, he invited children to find trusted adults with whom they could share their questions.  

Fred led me to reflect on how faith can lead us into the essentials and mysteries of life. And my time in residency as a hospital chaplain has led me into the suffering and existential questions of others. The ability to offer a non-anxious presence surrounding uncertainty has felt like an authentic expression of faith expressing itself through love. 

Love Is Embodied 

“People have said, “Don’t cry” to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.” I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.” (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, pg. 58)

Fred was one that didn’t have to use words in order to convey his message of love. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1985, he invited parents to remember what it was like to be a child as a way to connect with their own children. He also revealed this sensitivity throughout Episode 1101 (Death of a Goldfish) by modeling how to honor and express grief as an act of love. 

Fred’s embodiment of love has made me wonder how I could learn to be an empathic witness to others. 

Throughout my time as a teacher, parent, pastor, and resident chaplain, I have heard lots of stories about people’s heartbreak and loss. My own anxiety can, at times, lead me to try to fix those situations, but I have learned that attunement to others’ pain brings comfort and connection.  

Healing Is Interconnected 

“One of the mysteries is that as unlike as we are, one human being from another, we also share much in common. Our lives begin the same way, by birth. The love and interdependence of parents and children is universal, and so are the many difficulties parents and children have in becoming separate from one another. As we grow, we laugh and cry at many of the same things, and fear many of the same things. At the end, we all leave the same way-by death. Yet no two threads- no two lives- in that vast tapestry of existence have ever been, or ever will be, the same.” (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, pg. 186)

Fred pursued being a good neighbor through every encounter with another and through every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. After each interaction, he would reflect on all that he had learned. One of the most powerful things I found in the Archive was a note of reflection that Fred had written about his engagement with a stranger. He wanted to process how his posture could be adapted in order to foster deeper connection.

Fred Rogers has shown me that it is a lifelong pursuit to discover how I can love my neighbor as I love myself. My hope is that as I continue to wrestle with this question, I’ll move a little closer to becoming a healing presence for myself and my neighbor. May it be so. 

Rachel Hutson is part of our Educators’ Neighborhood learning community (Cohort 2021-22; Inquiry Educator, 2022-23). Connect with her:

The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. (2003). New York, NY: MJF. 

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