Continuing today on the theme of technology, television is one area of technology that has advanced tremendously over the past few decades. Within my lifetime, I remember when it was fairly common to save some money on a television by purchasing a black and white set. I remember growing up with a pretty small, but clunky, television in the living room that had a series of knobs on the right side. One was for changing the VHF channels of 2-13 (what ever happened to channel 1?) and the other was for UHF channels of 13 upward. Of course, broadcast television didn’t have nearly that many channels. But if a family was lucky to have cable, then it had access to dozens of channels! I grew up in a small farming town in the Imperial Valley, California. We shared our television market with Yuma, Arizona, so we only had three or four over-the-air channels at any time. Since then, televisions have become something that a kid growing up in the 80s wouldn’t recognize. Televisions now are flat, lightweight, and “smart”. They can stream shows and movies without requiring anything more than a high-speed internet connection. It’s pretty remarkable. As is true for most of us who grew up in Generation X, television was a big piece of my life.
Because I grew up watching television, it stands to reason that one of my heroes is Fred Rogers. Better known as Mr. Rogers, on television’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Rogers was ordained for a very specific ministry. He wasn’t ordained to preach in church and he wasn’t ordained to lead a congregation. Instead, Mr. Rogers was ordained specifically to serve as a television host for children. On his television program, Mr. Rogers taught life lessons, gave kids permission to experience their emotions, and made sure they knew that they were loved. Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and Reading Rainbow, starring LaVar Burton, were my go-to shows I watched daily as a child. It was a wonderful two-hour time block of entertaining, educational television.
To this day, I still love watching the Muppets characters on the Muppet shows and movies, Fraggle Rock, and Sesame Street. They’re fun and entertaining, and they have enough humor to remind us all that we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously. I also love Reading Rainbow and I think LeVar Burton is a talented, skilled host. He taught me to enjoy reading and stories, and I still get chills when I hear the first few bars of “Butterfly in the Sky.” But it was Mr. Rogers who taught me so many lessons in life that I still use to this day, and I truly admire him as a pastor and as an example of what it means to be a positive male figure. These days we hear the term “Toxic Masculinity” tossed around. If we’re not careful, we can misidentify this term as rejecting all things male. That’s not it at all. Toxic masculinity is the kind of masculinity that teaches boys and men that they can’t show human emotion. They have to be tough. If they get hurt, they should “walk it off” or “rub some dirt in it.” Toxic masculinity is the kind of mindset that teaches boys growing up that their value only comes from being a “real man”. Someone who is tough and aggressive. Someone who treats other people badly. Someone who is unkind. Mr. Rogers and LaVar Burton show us a different way. It is through our shared human experience that we can be positive role models to the younger generations.
Mr. Rogers was a talented musician and he incorporated his piano playing skills into every episode. While he would admit not everyone is a gifted singer, he still sang and encouraged his child-audience to sing along with him. While many of his songs were about art, games, and other fun activities, some of his most impactful songs were about expressing emotion. Lyrics from his songs include words such as, “What do you do with that mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite? When he whole world seems oh so wrong and nothing you do seems very right?” and, “You are my friend. You are special to me. You are the only one like you. Like you, my friend, I like you.” And, “Sometimes people are good, and they do just what they should. But the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes. It’s funny but it’s true. It’s the same, isn’t it for me… isn’t it the same for you?”
It’s important for children to know that their emotions are ok. When children learn how to feel their emotions and what their emotions mean, then they can grow up with the tools they need to avoid toxic displays. Another aspect of toxic masculinity is that it teaches boys that really only two emotions are ok for males: laughter and anger. Think of the aggressiveness you witness in the world. It is not at all uncommon for men to lash out in anger, to laugh at others whom they perceive to be inferior, or to abstain from activities that would make them look “less masculine” (whatever that means). Men certainly are not allowed to cry. Remember the movie “A League of Their Own”? Tom Hanks plays a washed up baseball player who is not healthy enough to fight in World War II, so he is asked to coach a women’s baseball team. When one of his players starts to cry, Tom Hanks yells at her and says, “There’s no crying in baseball!” I was a very sensitive kid growing up and when I was made fun of for crying, I held it in. This caused me to develop a pain in the back of my throat that doctors couldn’t recognize. It was a muscle strain from holding in my tears.
God gave us our emotions and they are useful tools. They inform us. Like Mr. Rogers sang, sometimes we’re mad. And sometimes we misbehave. And sometimes we cry and sometimes we laugh. Anger isn’t a “bad” emotion. It’s an emotion that informs us when there’s been an injustice. It’s a red flag telling us something is wrong. Sadness isn’t a “bad” emotion. It’s a red flag that tells us we’ve experienced loss. Certainly some emotions feel better to experience than others. But all emotions inform us about what’s going on in the world. It is quite ok to feel them, to acknowledge them, and to experience them. And there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t cry. I can’t tell you how many people have apologized to me for crying. Please don’t apologize for crying. Thank you for crying. Crying is a release valve that has healing properties. We cry because we’re supposed to cry. We’re built to cry. In the Gospel of John, we’re told that Jesus cried. Humans cry.
Humans are complex creatures and we need to make sure our young people know it’s ok to be complex. Some of us adults need to relearn that lesson as well. That’s why we continually learn to become in communion with our emotions and to understand them better. When we do, we get to know ourselves better. And when we do that, we are more present in the world with the people we love.