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Neighbors

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January 2020

They called him “Fat Freddy.” It’s an easy name to pin on an overweight kid. Shy, introverted, and asthmatic, he was a natural target for school and neighborhood bullies. So he spent much of his lonely childhood in his bedroom, where he was his best friend. There, Fred spent time with puppets, a ventriloquist’s dummy, and stuff animals. His make-believe characters became his friends living in his imaginary neighborhood.

But Fred Rogers was a fighter. In high school, he made friends with classmates who accepted him for who he was. Overcoming his shyness, he was elected president of the student council, served as editor-in chief of the school yearbook, and became a member of the National Honor Society.

During a break in his senior year of college in 1951, Rogers discovered that his parents had bought a television. He hated it for what it showed—and what it didn’t. But instead of walking away from it, and besides later becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister, he made television his life’s work.

Rogers wanted to use television as a means of nurturing its viewers. In 1953, he started his work in developing children’s television programming. He created characters like King Friday XIII, Daniel the Striped Tiger, and X the Owl. He made puppets and wrote music. A programmer watching Rogers talk to kids realized that he belonged in front of the camera. By 1968, Rogers was the front-and-center of one of the most famous television shows ever—Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It ran for 33 years and at its peak reached 1.8 million homes. For his work in children’s television, Rogers received 40 honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a lifetime achievement Emmy, and a place in the television Hall of Fame. More importantly, he won the hearts of generations of countless children and parents.

Rogers’ gift to children was his direct but reassuring presence, no matter the topic. He provided order and stability with each episode. There was a constancy about what he did, starting with his walking through the front door, smiling widely, and changing from suit coat to one of his trademark sweaters—all made by his mother. Rogers wasn’t slapstick. He didn’t teach numbers or ABCs. He just wanted children to know that even in the bad times, they could be loved and accepted for who they were. They had dignity. That was his legacy: a neighborhood in which everyone had a place. And everyone who watched him felt it.

We live on this earth a relatively short time, and when we go we can’t take it with us.   The “it” is our legacy. We might think of our legacy as those material possessions we pass down from one generation to the next. But our more important legacy are the lessons and attitudes we have taught to those who will follow us on the path of life. That legacy can be pretty good, or pretty bad. In Fred Rogers we saw a person who would not let life’s adversities overcome him. We saw a visionary, someone who could see beyond his eyesight. And we saw a persevering worker, a person who refused to give up on his mission of helping children grow into the people God intends of them.

What will be our legacy to our children and grandchildren? It’s a question to be answered in a Fred Rogers sense. What kind of neighborhood have we built—and are still building—for those who will take our place?

Though we claim to be a child-friendly culture, we may be the least child-friendly culture in history. We’re so me-centered. We want it all, here and now. We want money, travel, leisure, or other self-fulfillment at the expense of children. Under the stranglehold of a contraception culture, fewer and fewer couples have children—or have too few children. Our country’s fertility rate has fallen for the fourth year in a row, down 15% since 2007. Our neighborhood is becoming adults-only. Children have almost become its enemies.

And what happens to enemies? They get eliminated.   Just a few days ago, the Catholic Church remembered the Holy Innocents. Herod the Great, made king by Romans, was threatened by the slightest hint of a power loss. So when the Magi reported that Israel’s Messiah would be a babe, Herod slaughtered 2,000 boys.

We’re really no better. We’ve bought into a cultural ideology wrongly touting that for women to be free, they must have the legal right to kill their own children. It’s an ideology of power, not freedom. In our social neighborhood, violence has become the solution to life’s problems. Legal abortion is society’s refusal to accept the unborn for whom they are—developing people, God’s gifts to us, each unique and each sent for a reason. We have utterly crushed them by the millions. Even today people bury their heads in the sand, refusing to recognize that at every stage, an unborn baby is fully human.

Without change, it’s likely to grow worse, for some use killing the unborn to pander for political power. As a party, the Democrats want taxpayers to pay for abortions. They don’t want parents to know that their children are considering abortion. They even oppose saving babies who survive abortions. It’s infanticide, different from Herod only in method. And what if those who want to “save the planet” by having fewer children take power? It could eventually mean forced abortion. Won’t happen? Study China and India.

For the unborn, this year’s election will be critical if they are to be our neighbors. So before we vote, maybe we should remember what Fred Rogers was trying to teach about dignity and acceptance. He wasn’t just talking to children.

 

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.

© Paul V. Esposito 2020. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us at http://www.the-culture-of-life.com/ and on Facebook.

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