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Won't you be my neighbor?


“It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?...” -Beginning verse, theme song to ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’

Today is the 51 year anniversary of Fred Rogers taping the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on September 21, 1967. I very fondly remember watching the episodes with my sister, and sometimes our cousins, at our grandparent’s house, crowded in front of the ‘tube. (Or ‘TV’ for those born after 1990). He taught us the keys to happiness, and most of us either missed the lessons he gave us, or forgot them. Let me refresh your memory.

As a child, there was something about the simplicity of the show that was just so entrancing, and calming, and I think it had that same inexplicable feeling for everyone. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned Fred Rogers was so multi-talented. He wrote all of the music for the show. He advocated for children’s television. And, although perhaps not formally trained, in many ways he was a pseudo-counselor, life coach and therapist. He wrote more than a handful of self-help type books. He was a strong proponent of self-worth and self-love. He taught us about forgiveness. He taught us kindness and to take care of each other- the idea that we’re all ‘neighbors’ in this great big world. With all the current tension across the globe, so much of his commentary is so applicable and needed today. Here is a sampling of his timeless advice:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have.”

“The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”

Mr. Rogers was ahead of his time. He was trying to teach us how to be happy. Each of us has a time limit. It’s an unknown time limit that starts ticking down the second we are born. We rush around trying to make money and trying to buy things to make us happy. He knew that wasn’t the way to happiness. His ideas were almost Buddhist; an irony considering he was also an ordained Presbyterian minister.

So let’s talk about that whole happiness thing. These two quotes of his stuck out as particularly enlightening to me:

“I think it’s very important — no matter what you may do professionally — to keep alive some of the healthy interests of your youth.”

“Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions.”

When I saw the word ‘inventions’ it made me think of engineering, a career. I thought of how I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be an architect. More recently, my boyfriend was deciding what he wanted to do next in his life, stating that he didn’t enjoy his current career path. My first question to him was, “When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” Kids are more likely to dream big and be inspired. They don’t know limits yet. No critics have stifled their imagination. They see every door as open, or at least ‘openable,’ with a key they can attain in the future.

His reply to my question was, “I don’t really know.” He had little bits and pieces of ideas, but said there was no point in his childhood where he was really into any type of ‘when I grow up I want to be…’ scenario. This was so weird to me. I wanted to be an artist (but was told I might starve before making enough money to live on, damn critics), a marine biologist (but I can’t dive due to an inner ear problem), a contractor (but found out there are spiders and rodents under peoples’ houses, so no thanks), and an architect. I even had civil or mechanical engineer as back-up options. Him having ‘no idea’ as a child blew my mind, however he is actually the ‘norm’ and I am the ‘outlier’. Most people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. It’s the top anxiety of most college students - the pressure to figure it out, deadlines to do so, and feeling like you only have one shot to get it right (p.s. you have as many as you want).

My boyfriend knew he was always into physical sports, and that he’s competitive. He loves nature, and cannot work a 9-to-5 job in a cubicle. He tends to push limits and boundaries (okay so that’s my opinion, not his, but I digress). He’s constantly researching because he has a need to be continually learning and growing. He wanted to do something that mattered and made a difference, to have purpose. A vague list, but it was a start.

Let’s talk about critics. In his childhood, he was taught he had to be a lawyer or doctor, or something else that made lots of money, in order to be worthy. What a dangerous thing to teach a child, or any human being for that matter. He also moved around a lot and repeatedly had to start over and make new friends. He was like a seedling that kept getting uprooted, and then replanted, never having a chance to stay long enough to grow roots in any one direction. This uprooting prevented him from cultivating anything substantial that he could truly be proud of. And the critics that said he needed to make a lot of money to be worthy? Well they just got more critical. Unsurprisingly, this led to a loss of self-worth and the defeated feelings that come with that. When people tell you, directly or indirectly, that you are failing, you start to believe it. When you start to believe it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and you do start failing. What a slippery slope.

Now let’s get back to happiness. Joy and happiness keep us off the slippery slope. How many of us suppress the things that used to bring us joy because of past critics in our lives? Or perhaps it’s an overfull schedule that’s stopping you. But what made your schedule that full in the first place? Can you ask for help or pay someone to help? Are you pressured into going to every friend’s kids’ 1st birthday party that the kid will never even remember? Or mommy group meetups? After hours networking events? Are you spending your time trying to keep others happy? Yes, of course some of the things that make you so busy are needed. But are there items in there that can be cut to make room for activities that bring you joy? Can you incorporate some of those items into your career? What were your hobbies when you were younger, and how many of them do you still do regularly? Dancing, reading, gardening, baseball, painting, dirt bike racing, board games and competitions- what was your jam? Some of these are great team building activities in the work place. Some of these you can do as a volunteer and help someone out, or meet new friends. If you created a ‘childhood excitement list’ and took a look, some patterns and correlations should start to emerge as to what brings you joy in the first place.

This is what my boyfriend and I unknowingly did together, albeit by verbal conversation instead of a formal list. We talked about a lot of career options until finally one thing I said struck a chord, “Well, if you want to do something that matters and to do a ‘try before you buy’ with careers then volunteer somewhere. Read stories to kids at a children’s hospital, build with Habitat for Humanity, be a volunteer fire fighter, or a Big Brother at the youth center. Every occupation has a way you can volunteer and learn more about the profession.”

‘Volunteer Fire Fighter’ was the one thing that stuck out to him. He didn’t know you could be one. Then he went on to fondly tell me about how he would see the firefighter training tower nearby one place he had lived, and he would see the practice drills with the tower on fire and that whole bit. He got all excited, was going on and on about this tower, making grand hand gestures to emphasize his vividly described memories of this tower he only drove by as a child.

Let’s look at some other personality traits of his: He loves canyoneering, which in itself shows he has no fear of heights or confined spaces – the same skills needed for both Firefighting and Search and Rescue. He later tells me he did briefly consider being a doctor at one point, he’s fascinated by medical surgeries and how the human body works. Cue his excited tangent about some anatomy book with fantastic illustrations that he received from his uncle as a child and how much he loved that book. Note that 80% of 911 calls are medical in nature. Also, after moving around so much as a kid, we know he’d love to have a place and group where he feels like he belongs. The brotherhood between fire fighters could perfectly fit that need. Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner.

He took my advice and started volunteering at Station 41 in Fullerton, California, doing helicopter support. Then he got selected to go through their volunteer fire academy. Fast forward just one single year and he is a nationally certified EMT, a reserve fire fighter for Orange County Fire Authority, took classes and got certified as a fire inspector, then was a fire inspector for the City of Orange, completed all the fire tech classes offered at Santa Ana College and is currently doing their 16 week Firefighter 1 academy, and will be just a few GE class units shy of his first degree when he completes the academy in 12 weeks. Somewhere he has an organized binder of about a hundred different certifications he has now earned, all related to emergency services and firefighting. The point I am trying to make is that when you find what makes your heart sing, you go beyond surviving and you start thriving. Usually, there is some inkling of these heart-singing joy creators that are clear but often overlooked in our childhood. What you got excited about as a child is more important to think about than most people realize.

Let me give you my example. This was me as a child:

· I was obsessed with art supplies in general.

· Legos… We had a huge, full box and still there were never enough. I still have it.

· Writing poetry and short stories. I literally couldn’t part with my writings and still have some favorites in a keepsake box that go as far back as 3rd grade. Oh, and I always had at least one pen pal. I still have their letters- from Russia, France and Senegal.

· Music. I actually had trouble focusing on my homework if I didn’t have music playing in the background. It’s like I needed the beat to keep my pace and keep me on track. I was a band nerd. I played clarinet and then base clarinet.

· Riding my bike and occasionally testing out daredevil tricks, much to my mother’s dismay.

· Hiking in the forest and going to the beach · Always wanting to be helpful and ‘trying to save the world’ as my mother puts it.

My poor mom, she had to pay the medical bills for every stray cat I brought home. I also volunteered at the food bank, as a camp counselor, and was a Girl Scout.

· Creative and Curious · I read voraciously – Box Car Kids, Babysitter’s Club, and so many others

The reason the list above is so important is because the things you did for fun as a child meant you did them for no other purpose but to receive pure joy out of the activities. The core of a person’s being doesn’t change much as they age. What brought you joy as a child is the key to finding what will bring you joy and happiness as an adult. The problem with life is we forget where we left the keys to our joy as we grew into adulthood. Responsibilities keep piling on and we run out of time to do the things we once did as a child. Plus the critics keep weighing in with their opinions, stifling our joy.

When I got to college, my artistic side was thriving in my architecture program, however a lot of my other interests went by the wayside. Then one day I remember writing a journal entry in an English class. It was a creative writing class, the only type of English class I could tolerate. Shocking, considering writing short stories and poetry was on my childhood excitement list and brought me joy. I took the class because I loved hiking and being outdoors and the whole class was based on nature hikes. The teacher would take us out hiking into different natural areas on campus and we’d have to write about what we were experiencing in our journals, and then students would volunteer to read aloud at the end of each class session. I loved that class. I loved writing again.

One day, I volunteered. When I finished writing my journal entry, my professor quickly asked me, “Did you really just write that now? In the 10 minutes we’ve been sitting here?” I was taken aback and embarrassed. Another critic was setting up for the strike and my joy was going to be ripped away. I mean, what do you even say to a comment like that? So I replied honestly that yes I had just written it now and pointed out the different items within reach that were in my journal entry. He responded by asking me to come to his office hours. He needed to talk to me about my work. He saw the look on my face and followed up with, “Nothing bad, just stop by when you get a chance.”

I was perplexed. Was I in trouble or what? Did he think it was plagiarism? Concerned about my grade, I went the very next day, ready to defend myself and hopefully not fail the class for some unknown reason. I anxiously sat down in his office, journal in hand.

“Can I see that please?” he asked.

I silently handed over my journal. He started paging through it. “High quality journal,” he mused. He leafed through the pages, pausing on sketches of leaves, a barn, a lizard. He touched some pressed wildflowers that I had taped inside, while reading through an entry. Then another entry. And another.

“What major are you?” he said shortly.

“Architecture.” I meekly replied.

“You’re in the wrong major. Why are you not an English major?” he said bluntly.

“Excuse me?” I was even more perplexed.

“What other English classes have you taken?”

“Umm… the last time I took an English class other than this one was AP English… you know, in high school? This is the only GE English class I need to take to graduate. Do I need to take another one?”

“So you have no other formal English classes? No college classes?”

“No sir… Is there a problem?”

“This writing. I questioned it, but it’s clearly yours. It’s all in the same tone, style, there’s a specific syncopation. It’s actually really good, and I mean professional grade or very close to it. These need no revision, other than a bit of grammar. There are no cross outs or eraser marks. It’s like it just flows out of you at first pass. This is a level of writing people will actually pay you for. Do you realize that?”

“Um… No sir.” I was wide-eyed and stunned. That was the last thing I ever thought would come out of his mouth. I didn’t necessarily agree with his opinion, past critics had made me doubt myself, but I was very flattered and relieved that I was going to pass the class.

Of all the majors I had considered, English had never crossed my mind. Why? I had had too many critics, and they were my previous English teachers. One didn’t like my analysis of Wuthering Heights. One said my interpretation of The Metamorphosis was totally off. I didn’t memorize all the different examples of existentialism in Camus’ The Stranger and failed that test. Or they just plain didn’t like my choice of subject matter. The list goes on and on. The critics had stolen my joy, and so I had unknowingly suppressed my writing talent and excitement – and stopped writing until this class where I was required to do so. How sad is that?

We tend to lose sight of our childhood interests, our true inner-self, because other people teach us that ‘we’re not doing it right’ or we’re ‘not good at it’. The critics steal the joy. The more we grow up, the more critics we come across. Making matters worse, overbooking ourselves leaves us with no time and nothing left to give. These joy-bringers of your childhood are suppressed, but still within you, waiting for you to tap back into them. No one took them away. I urge you to make a list like the one I did above. Think about that list and find activities that serve the same, or a similar purpose, to those that brought you joy as a child. Take 15 minutes to try to find a lost piece of your inner self in that list. Your time clock is ticking, and you never know when your time will be up, so I challenge you to get the most joy out of your time that you can. I’ll leave you with one more quote:

"You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are." –Fred Rogers

In case you’re curious, here is the journal entry from college. Yes, I saved that journal.

Journal Entry 7 - April 14th, 2005 - Poly Canyon Road

Wings move elegantly, effortlessly, as they try to catch the wind. Black feathers splay open in the sunlight, glowing a translucent orange. The form, function and density of each part of the body is clearly evidenced by the transmission of light and shadow. Hanging on the edge of a steady breeze, the hawk awaits its prey. Nothing there. It swoops right to balance on the edge of another breeze, teeters this time side to side. It swoops down briskly, perfectly, but comes back up, curved talons grasping merely a breeze. It swoops left, then right, almost a full figure-eight. It pauses again, on the edge of another breeze, feathers holding the tension of the air like floating sculpture: perfect, motionless, waiting, silent. One more swoop. Down right, then left. Empty talons again - it moves on.


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