What do you do with the mad that you feel?

The title of this post is the title of a song by Mr. Fred Rogers. Last Friday, I wrote about two important lessons I learned from Mr. Rogers. Today, I would like to write about another lesson he taught: It’s okay to express your feelings, even if they’re not the “good feeling” immortalized in the closing song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But because I’ve never, personally, had trouble expressing my feelings, I’m going to talk about this issue in the voice of one of my fictional characters, Sam Larson, who appears in my zombie apocalypse work in progress. Here’s what Sam has to say:

I had a weird childhood. I was an only child; I didn’t have any relatives who were close (in proximity or in relationship), and I didn’t have a really good friend until high school. My mom was deeply depressed; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she spent most of my childhood in a catatonic state. My dad did a remarkable job raising me, considering the circumstances, but he wasn’t much of a talker to begin with, and he especially avoided talking about feelings. (His own father had been a silent northern Minnesota farmer. I didn’t know my grandfather well, but “silent” is definitely the right word for him.) My dad’s typical response to sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion in himself was to eat something, watch TV, or go to sleep, and I learned the same behavior from him.

So I watched a lot of TV, and a wide variety of it, as a child. One day in the summer when I was 11, when my mom was feeling okay enough to come out in the living room but not enough to make recommendations or strictures about what I should be watching, she and I ended up sitting through the first two Godfather movies, which took pretty much all day with the commercials. I still consider those brilliant films, but I shudder to think of the messages about being a man that I was probably absorbing unconsciously while watching them at such a tender age!

On the other end of the spectrum, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even after I was probably way too old for it. I was fascinated by this man and his friends (mostly puppets), whose response to feeling mad or confused or out of place was not to eat a plate of chips and dip but to tell someone else about the feeling, perhaps in the form of a song. I think one reason that my dad tried to avoid feelings is that he equated emotion with drama (maybe he, too, had watched the Godfather movies as a boy!). But in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, you could talk about your feelings in a calm, rational way, knowing that it was normal to have them and that the person you told wasn’t going to start screaming at you.

When I was a younger kid, I used to have trouble identifying my emotions. I might say that I was hungry when really I was lonely and wanted to spend time with my dad. That’s not unusual; it takes a while for children to develop emotional intelligence (though I think that whenever I would have an overwhelming, generic “bad feeling,” it was probably my depression, which I now believe I had even then). Mr. Rogers also helped me learn how to label my emotions so that I could then deal with them appropriately.

By the time I reached high school, I was still an odd, quiet kid, and, yes, I was clinically depressed, which is a different story. But I had learned that if I felt worried about my mom, or embarrassed because I liked to draw or because I was the biggest kid in my class, or mad at my dad for not talking about his feelings, I wasn’t experiencing something wrong or weird; I was just feeling like a human.

If I am a kind and gentle man today, which I hope I am, I certainly owe some of that to my dad, but I owe a lot of it to Mr. Rogers. And if I’m a man who’s cool with talking about his feelings, which I know I am–well, counseling has helped, but I owe that to Mr. Rogers too.

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One thought on “What do you do with the mad that you feel?

  1. […] the main character in my zombie apocalypse story is Sam Larson, whom you can read about here and here. I said that Sam wouldn’t be in Harry’s position at all; he’d be in Hufflepuff […]

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