A Rare Sincere Post

The last film to make me openly weep was ‘Big Fish’. It was many, many years ago. A picture that effectively killed Spaulding Gray. Google it. Heavy stuff.

Last night, on a ten hour flight across the ocean, I finally watched ‘’Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”. I had steadied myself in advance; I knew it was a notorious tearjerker, but remained convinced not an emotional grenade that would shrapnel me. Boy, was I wrong.

I'm not so far gone inside my own press hype as to not admit that I cried. Quietly, in my seat, drinking increasingly warming bourbon while the plane walls rattled from terrifying turbulence I tried to ignore.

Truth be told, I am not an easy fan of children, of theology, of general open book goodwill. After all, I’m from New York - you learn early to toughen up. I was an atheist by 14, and goodwill was an earned quotient.

This is not to say that I was combative by nature in regards to my non-belief...some of the best people I know today are people of faith. Close friends. Many happen to be in famous bands. I’m not going to name them, because that doesn’t matter. It also doesn't matter that we disagree on what formed the world, when. What matters is this - these friends share a similar, admirable strain of faith with the man many close to him simply called Fred.

Mr. Rogers was, in every sense that matters, a true Christian. Tolerant. Empathetic. Selfless. Caring. Someone who listens. A man who knows the power of occasional quiet reflection.

Sadly, an ever-increasing rarity.

I don't know if it is the fact that I travel a lot, or that the current climate in the U.S. has hardened my resolve to pay a debt that isn't mine to really carry...I tip absurdly heavy and drown in an ocean of manners as a default, meek apology while abroad, hoping in some small way to turn an opinion positive that probably does not even exist...but this film, and it’s in-depth portrait of Rogers as a true person, crushed me in the best possible way.

I'm from the 'land of the free and the home of the brave.' For a long time, as hokey as it was, I felt a lot of truth in that saying. Americans were long thought of as arrogant by the rest of the world...shit, I KNOW I have moments of pure American arrogance and loath myself in the dead of night for those minutes in retrospect...but for many years I considered American pride an 'earned' arrogance.

I understand your knee-jerk to that statement, but hear me out. America was formed on the concept of 'fuck you'. We were gonna go our own way, and fight for it. That's bravery. The understood basis that your particular, individualized talent helped define you in U.S. capitalist society...whether you were an ace in math, could clean teeth, had a knack for illustration, god forbid could spin a humorous yarn on stage...was inherent and spawned hard work. The cream would ideally rise to the top based on some semblance of merit and talent and drive. Yes, I understand inherent racism of the times pushed many of the deserving down - but you grasp my point I hope.

That point being - there is a bravery in 'fuck you'.

There is a bravery in 'I'm going to try and create a steam engine'. There's a bravery in 'This is beat poetry and the open road and screw your war'. There is a bravery in 'I'm not moving to the back of the bus.' There is courage in 'I have a right to marry the person I love.'

And bravery, as terrifying as it often is in the moment, inevitable yields either resolute defeat...or true freedom. But somewhere along the line, that American arrogance I felt a begrudging sense of pride in got corrupted. It became an arrogance of assumption. Of haughty 'I got mine' candor. Of entitlement. Of scorn towards 'the other'. I have seen it in full peacock feathers over the past 10 days while traveling abroad. And it makes me want to slide into the floor.

Mr. Rogers has eclipsed the definition of a hero; he has achieved sainthood. I'm not kidding. Forget your postage stamp, put this man in stained glass. He is humanity at its finest. He diminishes my cynical default. He makes me want to be better.

This film will leave you changed, and if it doesn't you are hardened beyond hope. It wasn’t the ending of the picture that punched my tear ducts, or even, honestly, the overall ‘try and be a light for good’ sentiment. It was the thought of how truly horrified Mr. Rogers would be by what passes as now-daily commonality in our public discourse. That, to me, was overwhelmingly sad. Almost crushing.

I will not go as far as to say I am ashamed, currently, to be American. That's false. Some days I admittedly come close. I cringe at our barely-elected mouthpieces weekly. But the hard truth is, ultimately, I find myself longing for the days when America chose its self-defining traits - bravery, earned freedom - above all else.

Today, we do not define ourselves as a united nation, but out of divided, blind party loyalty. These are not centrist times we are living in. At a certain point, you have to choose a side, or become complicit by default. Myself included.

Regardless of party, I will choose global empathy. A free press. A nation built on checks and balances, not partisan greed and physical walls that boast strength but instead project cowardice. A united front against all those sympathetic to nazi stances, head-on. This is the America I choose to try and represent, wherever I am in the world 

For those that believe, Christ died a long time ago. I'm not here to debate that. If faith helps you, I'm legitimately happy for you. If you attack my LGBT friends, we have a problem. Regardless of which side of the tolerance fence you reside on, I am firmly of the opinion that our country could use an updated rhetoric.

Enough with 'WWJD'. From here on out, I'm doing my best to re-commit daily, mentally, to 'WWMR.RD'.

Hokey? Absolutely. But sometimes hokey is still the right path.

Call it a compromise of faith.

National stages...free of this heaviness and large on dick jokes, scout's honor...I will see you beginning November 6 - December 8.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe. Please vote with your empathy leading the way. See you out there. - JT