You Don’t Know Me, Fred Rogers

Being Loved Without That Kind of Reciprocity is Terrifying.

Carrie Willard / 11.15.19

As a Generation X child who grew up with a stay-at-home mom in the upper Midwest, it was almost mandatory that my younger brother and I watched Sesame Street during lunch, and then afterward, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I know exactly what my mom was thinking, putting two preschoolers in front of the television like that after lunch. She was thinking that if she were lucky, we would be lulled to sleep by Mr. Rogers’ calm, slow voice, she’d have a minute to herself. I can’t blame a woman for trying.

Mockingbird long extolled the virtues of Fred Rogers, for more than his sedative qualities. And it’s no wonder why: the man is a national treasure. He seemed nearly flawless in his understanding of children and social justice, and he was a whiz at hand puppets. What more could you want?

I didn’t trust him. I knew when I was being duped into a nap, for one thing. (Oh, how I long for the days I could make the whole world happy just by falling asleep in the middle of the day!) But there was something about the way Mr. Rogers looked straight into the camera lens, straight at me, which I found unsettling.

“I like you just the way you are.”


I felt the same way about the truism spouted by every 1980s after-school special about divorce: “no matter what, kids, it’s not your fault.” How did they know? I wondered. What if a kid was super annoying? Those after-school specials were kind of full of it with their one-size-fits-all comfort, and I, for one, was not having it.

We grew up in the world of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Caveat emptor, even when (or maybe especially when) it comes to love. And Mr. Rogers was too good to be true. After Fred Rogers died, when the movies and the stamps and the documentaries started coming out, I got increasingly uncomfortable. I’m ashamed of this discomfort, because I seem to be completely alone in it. Everyone else in the world seems to adore Fred Rogers.

“I like you just the way you are.”


I can’t escape the feeling that there are some skeletons lurking in his closet, or some secret family that he kept from his wife. Surely he yelled at a staffer, or made a pass at Mr. McFeeley after drinking too much eggnog at the holiday party. (I mean, come on. Mr. McFeeley!) But the more time that passes since his death, the more Mr. Rogers becomes enshrined on the Throne of Goodness and Light.

As it turns out, he probably deserves that. He is sweet without the saccharine touch of Barney the Purple Dinosaur. So, why does he make me so uncomfortable?

I got over myself long enough to read a long piece in the New York Times about Tom Hanks, who plays Fred Rogers in the upcoming movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The piece extols the virtues of Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers both, and describes their innate niceness. Tom Hanks on parenting describes my parenting goals in a neat little paragraph: “Somewhere along the line, I figured out, the only thing really, I think, eventually a parent can do is say I love you, there’s nothing you can do wrong, you cannot hurt my feelings, I hope you will forgive me on occasion, and what do you need me to do? You offer up that to them. I will do anything I can possibly do in order to keep you safe. That’s it. Offer that up and then just love them.”

Tom Hanks’ (perfect) words on parenting also describe the appeal of Mr. Rogers. He just loved us. Or at least he told us he loved us.

What was wrong with my skeptical little preschool soul that I couldn’t accept that? I picture myself as a chain smoking grouch in the corner, rejecting the unquestioning love of Fred Rogers. It was just too much. I feel my face burning, and the undeniable urge to crack a joke bubbles up inside me. “It’s a good feeling to know you’re alive” … or is it?

It wasn’t that I’d been burned by love. I had a family who loved me even though they really knew me. But I was highly suspicious of the calm kindness of Mr. Rogers, loving me just the way I am. What was the catch? Did we have to pledge to PBS to make it true? Eight easy installments or King Friday won’t make it through next season?

I think this must be the same skepticism that many people have about the love of God, and the nature of the cross. How can God know us AND love us?

Here’s the thing about Mr. Rogers. He had faults. I’m sure his wife could tell you about them. I bet it had something to do with the unnecessary cardigans and the time it takes him to change his shoes. His fame peaked before social media, and so who knows what a 2019 Fred Rogers would have brought us. He had privilege, and he used it well. But I’m sure he didn’t come out of the womb that way. Someone had to form him, wipe his nose, and teach him how to say thank you. We don’t see those faults. We just see this calm, sweet man, telling us he loves us.

It’s his seeming perfection, I think, that throws me. If he had some visible flaws, or maybe yelled a little when he stubbed his toe, I could accept his forgiveness and love because I’d have to forgive him for those flaws.

God actually is perfect, and actually does love us the way Mr Rogers describes. But he doesn’t look directly at us, even through a camera lens, to tell us that. Honestly, I don’t think I could handle it. I can’t even accept compliments graciously. My mortal frame can only handle so much up-close love and forgiveness. I need to accept that kind of love in pieces, in glimpses shown to me by the other up-close humans whose flaws I can see. I can only handle the fact that my dermatologist has seen every square inch of my skin because I pay her to look. Even then, I fill the space with rapid-fire awkward conversation. If she looked at me and told me she loved me just the way I am, I would leave and never come back. I would maybe move to a different city, just to be safe. Being loved by my husband and children comes with an intimate understanding of what it means to love and forgive them. But being loved without that kind of reciprocity is terrifying. It destroys any notion of fairness and balance, and I can hardly accept it.

Is this why the disciples hid when they heard of Jesus’ resurrection? Were they more afraid that they would be persecuted for knowing him, or that he would see them and love them in spite of their flaws? Were they afraid that he would tell them that he loved them just the way they were? I understand that need to hide.

Growing in faith has been learning to accept that kind of love without hiding from it. Knowing the love of Jesus has been a long, slow acceptance that I can be truly known and truly loved without payment or reciprocity. I take it in miniature glimpses from people who do know and love me, and forgive me up close and personally.

Maybe someday, with enough practice, I can even accept it from Fred Rogers, too.



7 responses to “You Don’t Know Me, Fred Rogers”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Amazing piece, but also… those pictures!! FOR THE AGES. There must have been a Dale involved.

  2. I, for one, almost always fell asleep to Mr. Rogers the way mom intended for it to be. Glad to hear you gave her a run for her money that way, smoking your cigarette in the corner and doubting Mr. Rogers’ sincerity. You crack me up. I have faults (unlike Mr. Rogers and Tom Hanks) and I love you just the way you are.

  3. Sarah Condon says:

    CARRIE ????❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  4. DALE E KLITZKE says:

    Yes David. Dale encouraged the faces and was the photographer. I keep Carrie in line (well, sort of) by threatening to send you the pictures that have not been made public—-yet. Carrie, David is right—another great article with awesome pictures. Keep writing!

  5. Brook says:

    Thank you cousin Carrie. This is great. Love.

  6. Carrie Willard says:

    ❤️❤️❤️ You’re my favorite sister!

  7. Jen says:

    Carrie! I can totally relate – while I love Fred Rogers on the surface… deep inside me I am dubious! Thank you for this great post and for reminding us that Fred is simply a shadow of God’s love. Bravo!

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