Sensing Goodness

Jan 30, 2023
Melissa Butler

Good is a little word that means many things. It can signal graciousness, generosity, virtue, or it can mark concise word choice when grand, fabulous, brilliant is too much. In its simplicity, it upholds its enoughness.

Fred Rogers spoke about goodness in his Television Academy Hall of Fame Honoree Speech in 1999:

“Life isn’t cheap. It’s the greatest mystery of any millennium. And television needs to do all it can to broadcast that, to show and tell what the good in life is all about. But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own. By treating our neighbor at least as well as we treat ourselves. And allowing that to inform everything that we produce.”

We can look at any slice of any episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and make a (long) list of what is “good.” There are endless frames to use to notice and describe an episode moment: theme selection, child development theory, relational approach, messaging, camera angles, soundscape, music integration, transitions, content layering, what’s said/not said, object curation, to name a few. Through any of these lenses we can find elements of goodness.

It's beautiful and good work to explore episodes of MRN and other archival resources. In our Educators’ Neighborhood community, we discuss episodes, identify key learnings from Fred Rogers, and apply these to practices embedded in our lives and work. We learn from, and live into, the aliveness of Fred’s archive in the present moment in our various teaching, learning, and helping contexts.

It also can be good to step away from focused efforts to list, look for, name, analyze, connect, trace back, triangulate, or categorize elements of MRN, to loosen the lenses of our study of practice, and let ourselves simply be with its goodness.

I’ve been doing this lately. Watching an episode and letting it wash over me. Noticing one small segment and allowing myself to sense into it. Not think too hard. Not try to understand or explain it. Simply be with it. This is helping me find something new. Beyond what I could find with my mind alone. Beyond what I thought possible. And it’s teaching me about goodness—the surprise of it, the delight, the depths, the essence of its “anything essential is invisible to the eyes” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).

Here’s what I’ve learned about goodness from sensing into the goodness of MRN:

  • Goodness isn’t something of effort. You don’t try to be (good/kind/true/caring/___). You let yourself be you. That’s it. The goodness is in the nothing of it. The nothing is the everything. That’s the essence.

  • Goodness shares itself through the energy of joy and play. We connect with goodness when we feel a spark of delight. We smile, laugh, unravel, loosen, engage through our hearts. When we are present with ourselves as playful joy, we know goodness.

  • Goodness doesn’t try to fix. It’s not against anything, nor does it try to prove itself right or righteous. It’s not seeking change or control. It’s enough as it is. Simply present is its perfection.

  • Goodness is seen when it’s trusted. When we assume that goodness is present, we will find it. When we trust that it is there, we see it clearly.

I could name explicit examples for each of these “findings” concretely linked to scenes in episodes of MRN. In fact, it would bring me delight to do so. But this would miss the point. My sense is that the essence of goodness found in MRN is in the between spaces, the ethereal invisibilities, and that we might find an expanded potential to connect with this goodness when we let ourselves simply be present with it (and allow it to surprise us).

This is only my reflection. The most beautiful part of this work, including our collaborative learning in Educators’ Neighborhood, is that we share and listen with each other in community. If you’d like to play around with ways to sense into the goodness of MRN and see what you find, you can always find an entire week of episodes from Fred Rogers Productions here: You may also like to join one of the Symposium Series conversations.

I often witness people separate themselves from what they observe in MRN as if what they see is far removed from themselves… too lofty, too perfect, too good. Yet there’s nothing in the essence of goodness that suggests that goodness is “there” rather than “here.” Any goodness you sense in MRN isn’t held inside the television box. The goodness you sense in MRN is the goodness of you.

In the same TV Hall of Fame speech mentioned above, Fred Rogers said: “Fame is a four-letter word. And like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love, what ultimately matters is what we do with it.”

Good is also a four-letter word. And ultimately, the most powerful work we can do with goodness is to see ourselves as its reflection.

Melissa A. Butler is a Senior Fellow in Teaching and Learning with the Fred Rogers Institute. Find her: here and here.

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