Mr. Rogers doesn’t live here anymore: storytelling & civil society

“There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” — Mr. Rogers

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton mentioned that quotation in the TED Talk on storytelling that I wrote about yesterday. He said Fred Rogers, the iconic friendly guy in a cardigan, always carried with him a piece of paper with those words written on it.

Mr. Rogers shows viewers around the neighborhood
Publicity photo: Mr. Rogers & his neighborhood
Even as a kid, I found Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood a little too saccharine for my taste. But I do agree with Mr. Rogers’ saying. Or I used to.

Stories seem a remarkably tame weapon against the hatred being stoked by President Bannon the elected and un-elected officials currently running our government. The idea of swapping stories with these people is as ludicrous as sending Fred Rogers out into a firefight wearing his trademark sweater instead of a flak jacket.

Kindness only goes so far.

Storytelling remains the best way to connect with people. But only if those people are willing to hear. And…

Mr. Rogers gave me writer’s block

[one day later]

No, I don’t believe in writer’s block. And I don’t have writer’s block. But I’m having trouble making words come out of my fingers.

I guess you could say I have “writer’s hopelessness.”

I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. Decades before I started doing it professionally.

I know stories have power. But…

[two days later]

Stories propelled the LGBT rights movement forward, as non-LGBT people learned we aren’t some strange breed from a glitter-filled planet. We’re their neighbors, friends, family. The person praying next to you in church. The teacher, the rabbi—and, yes, sometimes your hairdresser too.

In the 1960s, stories—aided by video and brave television correspondents—stoked the opposition to the Vietnam War. Stories and film of water cannons unleashed on defenseless schoolchildren ratcheted up support for civil rights.

Stories told by primly corseted middle-class women in 1800s America helped stoke the fires of Abolitionism. And stories told by enslaved people who’d escaped to freedom brought slavery’s evils into sharp focus in the parlors and assembly halls of the north.

Story-telling has a long history of helping “them” to understand “us”—whoever the oppressed us du jour may be. I know this.

Mr. Rogers, I surely want “them” to love me, us. But I am not at all sure I want to love them back.

I want to understand why they hate me—and hate so many others, even more marginalized than I am. But I am nowhere near ready to love them. Or even to “learn to love” them.

And that’s a terrible place to find myself in, both as a story-teller and as a Christian.

Enter Absurdity

I was about to type the cliché “The only way out is through.” But I decided to source it, so I turned to Sir Google and found it appears in contexts as diverse as Robert Frost, religious writing, Psychology Today, and—of course—the World of Warcraft video game. It seems to be the title of an episode, if that’s the right terminology: “Quest: The Only Way Out is Through.”

Wowpedia tells us that the rebel leader Thalyssra—who’s in serious need of an eyebrow wax

“…is caught up in a deadly race to save her people from their grievous error before she succumbs completely to the mindless state of a withered.”

Grievous error, mindless people: that sounds like the right analogy for us, doesn’t it?

So we don’t have a choice, do we?

Tell stories, listen to stories—as Mr. Rogers commands us. They’re our magic swords, or pointy eyebrows, or whatever weapons Thalyssra uses. Stories can bind us together in solidarity. They can move us to action. They may—and I do hope Mr. Rogers is right about this—even be able to help us understand each other. Let just hope they can work their magic before we succumb completely to the mindless state of a withered.


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