I wanted to write a letter to a person and perhaps to the spirit of civility that we could all use a little bit more of in our personal and professional lives. Who would you want to write to, living or not? This is my From John letter (not my Dear John letter) to Mister Rogers.
Dear Mister Rogers,
If you were alive today, I know we, as a culture, would find ways to diminish your kindness, caring and inclusive work. Some would object to your soft touch, your sanitized neighborhood and your imaginary world. Some of us would dig into your Twitter account, if you had one, or at least your early writings, and find something you said that offended somebody or left somebody out.
Also, I am so sorry for what we have become and how we treat each other.
You would be excoriated for simplification of our lives. If you don’t believe me, look at any reasonable article’s comments section. It’s R- and X-rated, racist and generally intolerant. You would be horrified if you paid attention to us and most of the dialogue that’s just yelling.
Thank you for listening to me without interrupting, because my whole life now is about being interrupted by my phone, the internet, television and our always-on culture.
I am also so sorry for ripping my sister from the television when you came into our lives and our kind-of-toxic household and brought hope, calmness and care.
For some context, let me go back in time to Curtis Avenue in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the 1970s. I want to take you there for a moment to further my thank you. The setting? My living room, with our one television and the only four stations we had (CBS, NBC, ABC and public television). It’s the afternoon, and the parents are arguing again in the kitchen, not paying attention to us, so my brother and I are terrorizing our sister. It’s me, my brother Chris (two years younger) and Erin. Seven-year-old Erin is sucking on her blanket — or as we called it, her “sucking blanket” — for reassurance as our parents argue. She was watching you, Mister Rogers, thank God. (Talking about God is a risk, too, by the way.)
Seconds later, my brother grabs the blanket and smiles at me, and it is a sign. I take the other swath of blanket, and we drag Erin by the arms across the room. I let go of the blanket as Chris continues to drag her, now helplessly, teeth first, into the other room. We change the channel to The Three Stooges. I am sure you would be tolerant of two bratty boys picking on their sister and you would see the humor in the Stooges. But what we really needed to do was to listen to you, sit by her and learn. We certainly don’t need to get relief from comedy. Comedy has become vulgar, angry and harsh. You would not approve, and many would not approve of you for standing against our profane world. Would you? Maybe not. You might find a kinder way to laughter.
Here is also why I am apologizing. The level of incivility in our culture going into the year 2020 seems unprecedented. Nearly everyone I meet in person, over the phone, online and through my business and personal connections now seems to come with a set of triggers. What sets them off and bothers them will be known soon. They let you know. We yell at each other at work, over politics and at home. People, especially kids, are more connected to devices today and less connected to their neighbors — our true, close neighbors. We need you and your teachings more than ever.
We used to call these things pet peeves. Now the level of sensitivity’s volume goes from one to a Spinal Tap 11 in a nanosecond.
I digress. I want to apologize, finally, to your spirit, Mister Rogers, if not your extended family and friends. As long as I am apologizing, let me just say sorry to my sister, Erin, who clung to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood even to the endangerment of her teeth in the Sturm und Drang of our crazy household. Wasn’t this how everyone grew up then?
As we reexamine you today, Mister Rogers, I fear you would be ravaged with criticism and would not be able to lead us into a more civilized and caring world. Maybe the recent film will help bring more of that desperately needed mindset into our toxic culture.
Before I go, here are my questions for you (and any other reader) that I hope will be answered by the spirit you still bring us:
• How can we be more civil to each other in the age of the always-on culture?
• Can you teach us to treat each other better online or behind the anonymity of the internet?
• What could we do to bring more civility into our work and family conversations?
• Is there something we could do to practice what you taught us way back then right now?
I will commit to you and the spirit of what you represented to be kinder to my family and more considerate of others and to try to reach out to the people I come into contact with every day and sometimes just listen.
I do want you to know that our culture isn’t just a wreck, either. Look at the progress people with special needs have today through relationships and technology. I would brag a bit on the care we have shown to people bullied in the past — the LGBTQ community as one. You would really be proud of the work of many, young and old alike, who are putting mission first versus money.
Thank you for sustaining my sister and many like her under the onslaught of the bullies of the world — like me, at times. I will do better.
John M. O’Connor is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina.