‘Sesame Street,’ Fred Rogers, and regaining the moral courage of our youth

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Anyone with a taste for warm fuzzies should be able to get their fill between this week and next.

On Wednesday, the community celebrated World Day of Kindness — a day packed with do-gooding all over town.

Sunday evening, the “Sesame Street” 50th anniversary will air on PBS, celebrating a half century of helping children navigate the beautiful and tragic mess we’ve made of this world.

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“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, will open Nov. 22. For many children of my generation, Mr. Rogers was a rock of stability in a tumultuous world of self-serving chaos. We all would benefit, I think, from stepping back into a world where a kind soul in a cardigan teaches about love, empathy, justice, and how to be good friends.

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We express in brief moments like Day of Kindness the lessons we learned in these beautiful shows, because we want to go back to a time when we had the audacity, or perhaps just the unblemished innocence, to believe in a world ruled and defined by selfless compassion and love.

But, the lessons we learned on “Sesame Street,” from Fred Rogers and at the feet of our parents and teachers, are all-too-easily dismissed when we venture beyond the safe comfort of childhood into “the real world.”

In my adolescence, when I was so worldly and wise, I went from an innocent love of these childhood classics to scorn, even despise, “Sesame Street” and Mr. Rogers.

It’s painful to admit such misplaced disdain for Fred Rogers. But, I convinced myself it was irresponsibly naïve, leading children into the folly of believing their world could ever be kind, just and good. Better to harden children early to the realities of our blood- and greed-ridden society, I reasoned, with all the experience and wisdom of untested youth.

I’ve been roughed up and seasoned by life since then. I’ve seen in refugee camps the fallout of our policies. I’ve seen here at home children suffering food instability, drug addiction, poverty, abuse and neglect, on a truly shameful scale, in perhaps the most uniformly Christian corner of one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. I carry with me, daily, the weight of untold numbers of children, women and men I helped kill — people who had no need to die — in a war based on entirely false justifications, that served only to improve the profit margins of American corporations, create a new generation of broken and increasingly suicidal veterans, and plunge millions of people into a hellish existence that should not exist outside Dante’s “Inferno.”

I don’t claim any special level of experience. There are many living right here in our community who have seen and suffered far worse. But, I’ve seen enough of this world to know it’s easy to despair of any hope for the kindness, love and unbridled goodness we portray on shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It’s far easier to fall back on my adolescent view — that it’s best to just let children discover as early as possible this world is an irreparable, fetid dung heap of hatred, violence, greed and injustice.

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From what we see in the world around us, it can be hard to believe in what we believed so readily as children — to believe in even the possibility of a world defined by justice, love, empathy and grace. And yet, there are those who hold steadfastly, in spite of all the “realities” of this world, to this latter view.

For every bit of darkness and human ugliness I’ve seen in this world, I’ve also seen these irrationally selfless people — warriors of goodness and light — who insist on committing entirely nonsensical acts of kindness, mercy and love.

In spite of the prevailing darkness in our world, they keep coming, with their seemingly insignificant, and yet interminable, bits of light.

It is easy, in the dominant view of our society, to dismiss these resolute do-gooders as hopeless idealists who simply failed to learn “the way it really is.”

You see, it takes no special courage or effort to accept the decrepit, cruel state of our society under that flaccid shoulder-shrug of an excuse — “That’s just the way things are.”

“Just the way things are.” That may be the most damaging, and damning, combination of words in the English language. Like my adolescent self, we like to hide behind these words, behind the notion of some sort of high-minded pragmatism. But, in truth, it’s not pragmatic to ignore the injustices and evils of this world, as we’ve allowed it to be shaped. It is not “being realistic” to abandon the principles we once embraced as children.

No. That is not pragmatism. It is merely moral and spiritual indolence, masquerading as “being realistic.”

It takes far more moral courage, spiritual stamina and physical effort to hold onto the values we learned as children, not as bygone niceties, but as the foundation of the world in which we were meant to live — the world which we have a duty to create.

So, by all means, watch and enjoy the “Sesame Street” anniversary and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But, please, do not watch them only with nostalgia for values we’ve been forced to abandon at the threshold of “the real world.”

Watch them for what they are — a call to arms to create for our children the world we once believed possible. Because it is possible. But only if we make it so.

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