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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It’s such a good feeling

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching a documentary about an American icon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers, from here on, since it feels really weird to call him by his first name). I remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a young child, and I enjoyed Idlewild Park’s (in Ligonier, PA) Neighborhood of Make-Believe trolley ride as an older child and even a teenager, but not until now have I understood the depth of what Mr. Rogers was trying to do through his show. I want to write about two aspects of the film that struck me in hopes that you, too, will see him as more than a geek who talked to puppets.

love and acceptance

There’s a clip in the documentary, which I know is not in context and may not represent the real tenor of the conversation, of some smug news commentators calling Mr. Rogers “evil” and blaming him for the sense of entitlement that is supposedly so pervasive among the younger generations today, because he told children they were special without having to try to be special. I’m not entirely convinced that Generations X, Y, and Z are really as entitled as conventional wisdom would have it, but that’s another topic. What I want to focus on is this: How could you look at Mr. Rogers’ sweet face and call him evil??? No, that’s not what I meant to say. Here’s my more objective argument: Those who blame Mr. Rogers for causing children to feel entitled weren’t really listening to his message. A message that led to entitlement would go something like this: “You are the best at everything you care to attempt. You deserve for the world to give you whatever you want.”

But that’s not what Mr. Rogers told children. He never talked about being “the best” because he didn’t believe life was a competition. He did tell children they were lovable and acceptable no matter what. There’s a clip in the documentary of Daniel Striped Tiger asking Lady Aberlin if there’s something wrong with him because he is different from everyone else. Lady Aberlin doesn’t say, “Well, of course you’re different because you’re better than everybody else.” In the song she sings to Daniel in response, she uses the simple word fine, saying something like, “I like you fine just the way you are.” Telling kids they are “fine” doesn’t lead to entitlement; it leads to security, which is essential to basic human development. If a person feels secure, accepted, and loved, that person is free to love others, live a moral and responsible life, and try to make the world a better place. Mr. Rogers talked about those things too.

And he never claimed that the world would give children whatever they wanted. He talked about the truth that the world is a hard place. He did episodes on death, divorce, and difficult current events. He also talked about how making mistakes is part of life, and how that’s okay. There’s a wonderful clip in the documentary of Mr. Rogers trying to stand up on a pogo stick. I don’t think he ever got on that blasted thing! But he didn’t berate himself; he just said, “This is hard!” and kept trying.

make-believe vs. real

There was a part in the documentary that was strange to me at first. It seems that Mr. Rogers got upset about the rash of children getting killed or injured by attempting to fly off a roof like Superman. He got so upset, in fact, that after he had briefly walked away from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to work on other projects, he decided to return to the show and do a whole week on the pretend-ness of superheroes. My first reaction was that he was over-reacting. Kids know the difference between reality and fantasy, right? But the youngest children, who were always Mr. Rogers’ main audience, don’t necessarily know that yet–hence the Superman accidents.

The morning after I watched the film, I started thinking about this in a new light. I thought about how much I’ve always appreciated the fact that my parents never told me that Santa Claus was real. Santa was always just a fun story in our house. I know that millions of children every year lose their faith in Santa Claus and grow up to be well-adjusted adults, but I know what a sensitive little kid I was, and I think that if I had gone through that experience, I may have had some serious confusion and even issues with trusting my parents. So I’m thankful that while my parents always encouraged me to use my imagination, they made a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s make-believe, just like Mr. Rogers did. After all, as someone in the documentary pointed out, Mr. Rogers himself never appeared at King Friday’s castle or X the Owl’s tree. His home in the real world (leaving aside the fact that it was on a set in a studio) was separate from the world of make-believe.

And Mr. Rogers showed us that we don’t have to escape into fantasy to find delight; the real world may be a hard and sometimes scary place, but it’s also a wonderful place, where you can visit a pencil factory, bounce on a pogo stick (if you can get on it!), and cool off your feet in a pool on a hot day. In fact, I think maybe one reason I get so much joy out of the simple acts of getting the mail and feeding fish is that I watched Mr. Rogers do those things every single day–with a smile. Maybe this is what he was talking about when he sang, at the end of every episode, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.”

Next week, I want to write about one more lesson that Mr. Rogers taught, but I’m going to do it in the voice of one of my characters.

 

weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.

I ran a marathon yesterday!

Back in January, I wrote a post about meeting Connie, the septuagenarian marathoner, in the hotel exercise room, and how she inspired me to (maybe) run a marathon this year. So I thought I should check back in and let you know that I did, indeed, run the inaugural Silo District Marathon yesterday morning in Waco, Texas. Last fall, I wrote about my visit to Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia empire (a word I’m using in a descriptive, not a pejorative, sense); this race event, which also included a half-marathon and a 5K, was their brainchild, which means that it was both warmly hospitable and efficiently organized. This was my first marathon, but it was Chip’s first road race ever, so I kind of expected to be able to keep pace with Chip (who is also about 10 years older than I am), but I was wrong–he left me in the Texas dust. So did Clint Harp (Fixer Upper‘s go-to carpenter and furniture designer), who was the team captain of the half-marathon. He, along with a lot of the other half-marathoners, passed me even though their race started about half an hour later than my race, which didn’t make me feel very good about myself. The competitive, Gryffindor part of me was merciless during the part of the race when we were sharing the course with those fast half-marathoners; I couldn’t believe how slow I was, but then again I could believe it because I hadn’t trained enough, hadn’t rested or eaten properly the day before…I’ve posted a number of times (see here and here) about how hard I can be on myself, especially in physical competitions, so you get the idea. But then, around mile 10, the hard-working, long-suffering Hufflepuff part of me kicked in, and I turned my mental energy to forcing myself to keep going–even if that meant limping, as it did toward the end of the race. (I didn’t injure myself, unless you count severe chafing between my legs, to the point of bleeding–I was just really sore.)

Because that’s really what a marathon is about; forcing yourself to go on. With shorter races, things like technique matter a lot more. A marathon is about sheer endurance, which I like to think I have a lot of. (I’ve written about that too.) The race materials from this weekend kept referring to us as athletes, but I don’t think it requires that much athleticism to finish a marathon (at least not the way I finished it–barely dragging myself across the finish line); it just requires a willingness to endure pain. I’m not sure what that says about me. I think it may mean that I have a psychological problem. But I’m weirdly proud of it.

Today my quads are really hurting–it hurts for me to go down stairs (going up is okay) and to lower myself into a chair. And when I’ve been sitting for a while, I get stiff and have trouble getting back up. And I need to go home and put some antibiotic cream and bandages on that nasty chafing. Notes for next time, and notes to anyone who’s thinking about running a marathon: Seriously consider wearing pants or longer shorts, even if it’s hot. And maybe don’t run a marathon in Texas, where 75 degrees doesn’t mean a beautiful, balmy day like it does here in Virginia. 75 feels a lot hotter in Texas, where they seem not to know about clouds or shade. And also, make sure you train for an actual marathon–I meant to do that, but the longest training run I had made time for was 11 miles.

My most important piece of advice: If I can run a marathon, you probably can too. Chip Gaines would probably say the same thing about himself, though I’ll never underestimate him again! Our race t-shirts and the banner over the marathon starting line said, “You were built for this.” There’s obviously a home renovation pun in there, as well as a Purpose-Driven Life-style spiritual meaning. But when I think of people who are “built” for running marathons, I think of tall, willowy people; I don’t think of people who look like me (i.e. a hobbit). So I take inspiration from that as well–you may not think so to look at me, but I was, apparently, built to run a marathon.

Hufflepuff human resources

Last night, some friends and I had a lengthy discussion about human resources departments.  (Yes, we’re a barrel of laughs.) And then, on The Walking Dead, Negan–a character who is the opposite of a Hufflepuff leader, ruling by intimidation and derision (click here for a post on how I feel about him)–once again referred to people as resources, one of his favorite expressions. And then, this afternoon, the author of a newsletter article I was reading mentioned treating people as resources and assets as if this were a good thing. So, I thought, there’s the theme for this week’s post.

I think the newsletter article author was referring to valuing our people’s expertise and perspectives and trusting them to do good work rather than falling into the “I can do it better myself” trap. These are good things. Where the “people as resources” trope becomes dangerous is the point at which we begin to value people only for what they can contribute. I have blogged about this before, but I want to revisit the idea in a Hufflepuff leadership context (with some examples from The Walking Dead). When we start valuing people only by their contributions–an attitude I see in a lot of the rhetoric surrounding zombie apocalypse narratives, as well as (I hate to say it, but it’s true) in some of my Hogwarts compatriots from the other three houses–we ignore two crucial truths. Briefly, I want to remind us of those truths:

  1. All people have value because of who they are, not what they’ve done. As a Christian, I believe that all people have value because they are created in the image of God. If you’re not prepared to go that far, at least I hope you can accept that people have value because they’re human. That includes people who are judged as too disabled, too reticent, too selfish, too [fill in the blank] to contribute anything noticeable to the world. On The Walking Dead, as I’ve mentioned before, this means that even people who are self-admitted cowards, who freeze in the face of danger, are valuable. (Are you reading this, Gryffindors?)
  2. We all can contribute something valuable to the world, but that something might not look valuable in an obvious or accepted way. My favorite example from The Walking Dead is Father Gabriel, who isn’t a good fighter, planner, or leader; isn’t athletic, and has now become visually impaired. But he provides spiritual guidance and a calm, non-judgmental spirit that many characters have benefitted from (including Negan!). I always go back to the example, as well, of Rick Grimes, who got blasted by fans several seasons ago when he devoted some time to growing vegetables instead of killing zombies or fighting enemies. He was trying to help create a sustainable community–literally, to feed people–but because his actions weren’t the expected ones of a leader in this type of narrative, he was derided and undervalued–wrongly, as I will never stop arguing! I’ll give one more example: one of my favorite Hufflepuff predecessors, Newt Scamander. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, he is awkward around people, to the point of social paralysis, but calm and confident around animals. At the end of the movie, he applies that “gentling” ability to a human who is becoming something other, and he prevents that person from doing further damage to himself or others. So Newt, the guy who could barely carry on a conversation, ends up pulling off a fantastic feat of diplomacy.

So today’s leadership principle is this: People are much more than resources.

new kids in Hawkins

First I’d just like to say that while I’m writing this second of my two posts on Stranger Things 2, I’m eating a 3 Musketeers bar.  I normally don’t eat these except when I buy the fun size Mars variety packs for Halloween, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 3 Musketeers is in my top five, but the nougat really is a nice change from your average dense, heavy candy bar filling.

All right.  Last week I promised to write about the new more heroic, more mature, and more comedic Steve, and I was also asked to write about the new characters (besides Bob, whom I addressed last week).  So here we go.

Have you noticed that classically good-looking people are few in Stranger Things and that when they do appear, they are sometimes a bit morally suspect?  We’ll talk about the long-lashed, almost girlishly pretty bad boy Billy in a moment, but for now, let’s think about Steve, who was probably the most attractive person in season one (if you can get past his hair.  You have to do that with a lot of characters in this series.  It’s 1984.).  In season one, he was at worst a bully (though his sidekicks were the ones who were really mean to Jonathan) and at best a doofusy dreamboat who took a fancy to Nancy (who, since we’re on the subject, is a cute girl but is a little too waifish, with her enormous eyes, to be classified as model-gorgeous).  In this season, Steve earns sympathy by getting dumped (in an awkward, inconclusive sort of way), earns B.A. points by wielding a nail-spiked baseball bat (less sleek but perhaps more effective than Negan’s barbed wire-wrapped Lucille on The Walking Dead), and ends up becoming a protector, style mentor, and life coach of sorts to the kids, especially Dustin.  (I think I actually squealed out loud with delight when I saw that Steve was driving Dustin to the Snow Ball.)  He’s still a good-looking guy, but now that he’s become more relatable (significantly, that happened partly because he got his face beat to a pulp), he can fit in with our band of misfits.

Now, the person who beat Steve’s face to a pulp: Billy.  Obviously, this guy is a classic example of the adage that hurt people hurt people.  When we got a glimpse of Billy’s verbally and physically abusive father in action, Billy became a lot more understandable as a character, but for me, he didn’t became sympathetic.  He’s still arrogant, a bully, a mean big brother, and a racist.  As I mentioned last week, I haven’t looked at anything on the internet about this season yet, but I have this feeling that some people may be shipping the now-single Steve with Billy—after all, they had a tense conversation in a locker room and are the two most attractive people in town.  I hope it doesn’t happen.  I like Billy as an antagonist, and I like Steve carrying a torch for Nancy.  Let’s keep it that way.

Quickly, my thoughts on the other new characters:

Billy’s sister Max, AKA Madmax: She was more interesting for the reactions she caused in the other characters (especially Eleven!) than for herself, but I think she has potential to be a strong member of the team.  My favorite moment with her was at the Snow Ball when she kissed Lucas and then smiled.  I think it was her first actual smile all season, and it was a sweet moment.

The doctor from Hawkins Lab, Sam something? (Paul Reiser): I like that his character put a more complicated and human face on the operation than we saw last season.  I thought he did a pretty brave thing staying in the building and guiding Bob over the walkie-talkie when all those demodogs were running around.  But I’m still not sure if I like him.  It seems like his story trajectory is not yet finished, so perhaps we’ll see him next season.

Again, let me know what your thoughts are!

I finally caught up with the rest of the world and watched Stranger Things 2.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I watched the series on my laptop, which has a line down the middle of the screen (which sometimes created an amusing split-screen effect), but even with the small screen and display glitch, I feel like I got the full experience.  Because Stranger Things isn’t ultimately about a cosmic battle—it’s about the intimate emotions of the people in the Party fighting that battle.

Maybe it’s because I watched the final episode last night, so it’s fresh in my mind, but for me the moment in this season that encapsulates that emotional core is when Nancy comes over to those clunky, retractable, wooden get-a-splinter-in-your-butt bleachers (one of the countless nostalgic references in the show) and asks Dustin to dance, and we see that Dustin has been crying.  Not like a baby or like a drama queen, but like a seriously let-down 13-year-old boy.  I love that this vulnerable moment is shown but not belabored for all its sentimental worth.  That’s what this show does: It pierces your heart, but it doesn’t let you wallow—because there is, after all, a cosmic battle to be fought.  And like my favorite fictional cosmic battle (to save the Wizarding world, obviously), this one is fought using very non-fictional weapons: honesty (friends don’t lie), loyalty, courage, and love.

Let’s talk about courage for a minute.  I haven’t read anything on the internet yet about Stranger Things 2, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who fell into unexpected love with Bob Newby, superhero.  I mean, I expected to enjoy Sean Astin’s performance, but for the first few episodes, the show seemed to be sending Bob down a “mom’s dorky boyfriend who doesn’t get it” story trajectory.  But of course, when Bob is invited into the Party (the larger Party that encompasses everyone–kid and adult alike–who gets pulled into the orbit of this conflict) and given room to use his dorky yet awesome skills, he becomes a hero.  And yet he doesn’t suddenly turn into a fearless guy who always knows what to do.  I appreciate the shots of Bob hiding in the closet from the…demodogs, I guess we’re calling them? (thanks, Dustin) because we see that he’s sweating, he’s almost hyperventilating—he’s terrified.  But he does what is necessary.  In a conversation, I said that Bob is not a brave person, but he does brave things.  Those are the kinds of characters that I love.

One more character who really wrung out my heart this season: Hopper.  He told Eleven/Jane/Kid that he feels like a black hole, an entity that sucks people in and then destroys them, but I think the better metaphor (analogy?) is of an emotional punching bag.  I think of that horribly sad shouting match with Eleven about halfway through the season, where she was doing most of the shouting (and telekinesis) and he was mostly just absorbing it, taking in the hurt.  And then I think of Mike screaming at Hopper in the last episode because he didn’t understand, wouldn’t understand that Hopper did what he did because he loved Eleven just as much as Mike did.  No wonder the guy keeps breaking all his health resolutions—a man who takes all those hits has to do something to cope!

I’ll probably write more about Stranger Things 2 next week because I’ve got more to say, including about this season’s most delightful surprise, a brand-new Steve: babysitter, mentor, and unlikely big brother.  Meanwhile, tell me your thoughts.  Or go watch the show, if you need to do that first.