A preacher put this question to a class of children: ‘If all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green, what color would you be?’ Little Linda Jean thought mightily for a moment. Then her face brightened and she replied, “Reverend, I’d be streaky.”
We would all be streaky, of course. That’s illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden-a story shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Once they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were evicted…they lost their innocence.
In other words, to be human is to know that you have the potential for good and evil, right and wrong, and the process of becoming a person is to wrestle with those inner forces. Theologians call those inner forces God and Satan.
John Burroughs said, “Life is a struggle, but not a warfare.” The knowledge of our own potential for good and evil makes life a struggle.
Whitman said it poetically in Song of Myself:
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There never was any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance.
Always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity.
Whitman’s poetry sings the body and the soul; it is the song we all sing-the song of becoming a person.
Carl Rogers, the famous psychotherapist, wrote a book titled ‘On Becoming a Person.’
Carl Rogers is to psychotherapy what Fred Rogers is to television ministry. Most of Mr. Rogers’ most ardent fans are adults who used grew up with him, and few of them even knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.
Mr. Rogers helped children to feel understood, to feel worthy, and therefore to feel loved. That was his religion.
Mr. Rogers was a model for parents, teachers, ministers– anyone who works with children. He helped children to respect themselves and one another. He helped the child to become a good person. He encouraged parents to become better parents.
He wasn’t complicated. People who knew him have told me that he was the same on and off camera. What you saw was what you got. He was profound in his simplicity. He saw it best in the five year old-or maybe it was something that happened to him when he was five years old. In any case, he decided to become a five year old and to nurture the soul of that five-year-old.
“Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As far as I can tell, Mr. Rogers’ religion was based on the simple profound notion that God is Love. He certainly knew the power of love. He lived it.
Now, back to Carl Rogers, who revolutionized the course of psychotherapy by grounding it in the notion that the most essential ingredient in the process of becoming a person is to be listened to; to feel understood; to feel respected.
He said, “I have long had the strong conviction-some might say it was an obsession-that the therapeutic relationship is only a special instance of interpersonal relationships in general, and that the same lawfulness governs all such relationships.”
I’ve often quoted the short version of that statement, “Therapy is a special ingredient of all relationships.”
Does that make sense to you? Carl Rogers’ approach is referred to as client-centered therapy. Instead of trying to convince someone that you have the answer for him, if only he will listen to you, and do what you tell him…instead of talking and telling, he realized that real growth and change can only occur when a person feels heard…listened to…. respected. The result of being heard is to feel understood, and the result of feeling understood is this thing we call change, growth, therapy….the life-long process of becoming a person.
It’s not about agreement. We’re seduced into thinking it’s about agreement. It’s not. It’s about respect. It’s not about knowing the secrets of the universe. It’s about making real connections, and the deepest connections are made by listening with unconditional positive regard.
He said, “I have found that when I can accept another person, which means specifically accepting the feelings and attitudes and beliefs that he has as a real and vital part of him, then I am assisting him to become a person: and there seems to me great value in this.”
He said, “…the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.”
Becoming a person is about growth. That’s what Mr. Rogers’ life and ministry was about. It’s simple, but not simplistic.
People who knew him say that the person we saw on the television screen welcoming us into his home and heart, into his neighborhood, was the same person off screen.
Nancy O’Hara, who got to know him when she was a resident in a hospital at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh sent an email in which she said, “His TV persona was the man – genuine, caring, quiet, gentle. He would sit for hours and just watch kids, playing with them at their speed, their level of imagination, never seeming to tire of their endless play, endless questions. He seemed to get more joy out of it than they did. And this was after doing this kind of work for over 30 years. He was not a fake, not there for the money or power or ego of it, just for the kids. And he really seemed to love it. That’s what I remember about the man – the love.”
A friend of his tells about an incident with Fred. One day they were in New York City together and it started to rain and they had no umbrella and they couldn’t get a taxi, so they ducked into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the afternoon and the car was crowded with lots of children coming from school. No one approached him to get his autograph but someone started to sing ‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,’ and soon the entire car was singing to him, and, his friend says, ‘the clattering train turned into a single soft runaway choir.’
Carl Rogers called his method, or his approach, client-centered therapy. He said that therapy is a special ingredient in all relationships. It requires unconditional positive regard. It is grounded in non-judgmental listening, and it has nothing to do with agreement and disagreement.
The Sufi mystic Rumi said it: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
A helpful relationship is simply one in which a person feels heard, and “…at least one of the persons has the intent of promoting the growth, development, maturity, improved functioning, improved coping with life of the other.”
Carl Rogers’ approach was simple in a profound way-it was not simplistic. Life is a struggle. We all know that. But it doesn’t have to be a war.
Mr. Rogers did not try to protect children from some of the harsh realities of life. He said, “The world is not always a kind place. That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
He encouraged parents, teachers, clergy and others who work with children to talk about a child’s fears. He said that even the worst fears have to be ‘manageable and mentionable.’ So he did not shy away from topics like war, death, poverty and disability.
Mr. Rogers listed the things he wanted to encourage in children: self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence.
Those are the essential ingredients to the process of becoming a person…a good person.
Children had the sense that Mr. Rogers was speaking directly to each of them. He was a good storyteller-he believed in the power and value of make-believe as a way of revealing the deeper truths, and he trusted children to sort them out for themselves.
Carl Rogers talked about the need for the listener to be a non-anxious presence. Fred Rogers was the epitome of a non-anxious presence.
He was a good influence on my children and grandchildren; he was a good influence on me.
He encouraged children to think-to pay attention, to use their imagination. He encouraged children to ask questions. He helped children to feel safe. He helped children to develop tolerance for racial and cultural diversity. He had a natural gift–he understood a child’s mind by keeping and nurturing his own child-like qualities. But he never talked down to children. He didn’t patronize. He helped to learn how to cooperate, to be patient and compassionate. He taught tolerance. Children trusted Mr. Rogers.
He tells the story of seeing television for the first time. It was 1949. He was 20 years old, a music major in a small college in Florida and planning to go to seminary. He came home to Latrobe, Pennsylvania and saw the television that his parents had just bought. He says now, with an innocent kind of incredulity, “There were people throwing pies at one another.”
He said, then and there, that he would do battle with that machine, that medium, to wrestle with it the way Jacob is said to have wrestled with God all night long.
When he was presented Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award he made a small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”
Then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, and looked and his watch and said softly, “I’ll watch the time.” At first there was some uncomfortable hiccup of laughter as people realized that he wasn’t kidding. He actually expected them to do what he asked. So they did, and as he counted silently the mood suddenly changed. Lips quivered and mascara ran down cheeks, and the silence became sacred, reverential, as people remembered someone who had helped them as they struggled to become a person, to become the person they want to be. Suddenly the room was filled with souls that hovered over the auditorium and in those brief seconds everyone was transported to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood; a peaceful place, a trustworthy place, a place of acceptance–unconditional positive regard.
As he accepted the Emmy he wasn’t trying to convince them of anything, except that each person in that silent room has access to angels, that each one carries gifts that they can keep unwrapping all their lives. He waited, a little beyond the ten seconds, because he was transported, too, into the depths of the soul where our angels are stored.
Finally he looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all those five year olds in thirty and fifty year old bodies.
Carl Rogers used the one-to-one method; Fred Rogers used the millions-to-one method; their goal was the same: to help the people with whom they worked to become a person-a person who could feel respected, understood and therefore to feel loved.
That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? A person who feels respected, understood and loved is a person who is able to grow, a person who is able to love. It’s all about becoming a person.becoming a good person, for her own sake, and for the sake of this war-weary world…for the sake of this violent, too-often-selfish, greedy world…to become a good person.
Carl Rogers and Fred Rogers had a lot in common-they were simple in their approach and method-they were not complicated. They lived what they talked about. Carl Rogers had a term for that ‘living what you talk about,’ which he called congruence.
Incongruence happens when someone says things they don’t really believe. Maybe they do it to get paid to endorse a product, or sell a particular brand of religion. Maybe they display incongruence because they don’t believe they will be loved, or accepted, or hired if they reveal who they really are.
Congruence happens when a person is in her feelings: to be the fear, confusion, pain, pride, anger, love, courage or confusion.
Fred Rogers suggested that all the feelings are mentionable and manageable. Carl Rogers said that a person is helped to grow and change-that therapy happens-when that person can allow herself to express on the outside what is going on inside…what is going on way down deep on the inside.
One of the things that’s going on deep down inside all of us is a kind of apprehension and a low-level fear that we’ve been consciously living with since September 11, 2001.
I simply want to acknowledge that we’re living with this anxiety, and to acknowledge that this is a very difficult time for our nation. Our values as a great, powerful, caring country are being examined as we participate in the democracy we love. We’re reminded that we share a terrible responsibility-this is, after all, a democracy; this is, after all our country. While it is a privilege it is to live here, we’re being reminded of that responsibility in a way that seems to happen once in each generation.
Our deepest, most sacred values are being put to the test. It’s a difficult time for our children-every day they hear talk of impending war, and they worry. Every day they hear about the threat of further terrorism, and they worry. We must not deny that fear, but we must not foster the fear, either. The media thrives on fear-we’re much more likely to listen to the radio, watch the television, read the papers, if we’re anxious.
Mr. Rogers’ death last week is a reminder of the integrity, honor, sensitivity, intelligence and love that he personified. May his life’s work help us to be good neighbors to one another-to be good parents and partners, to be good friends who can listen with a non-anxious presence.
Our nation is split right down the middle about going to war with Iraq. There are thoughtful, caring, lovable, sensitive and informed people on all sides of the question; and there are more than two sides.
No matter what happens, at the end of the day we need to find that precious place of peace in our hearts. Toward that end I will close with a favorite prayer from the Native American Chief Yellow Lark. I invite you to be with me in the spirit of this prayer:
O Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, and whose breath gives Life to all the world, hear me. I come before you one of your many children, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.
Peace be with you.