Recently, my family watched “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a new movie about Mister Rogers and his relationship with a journalist. The story highlights Mister Rogers’ incredible ability to recognize, label, and regulate his and others’ emotions, make choices, and connect with every person he meets.
I vividly remember walking down Broadway St. on the Yale Campus with Fred Rogers and my late father, Donald Cohen. They had first met several years before in January 1971, when my father was completing his fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health. A letter Mister Rogers sent to my father after this meeting ended in typical Mister Rogers’ style: “I hope we’ll be able to meet again.” And they did stay in contact, sharing their passion for child development and advocacy. They also both died too soon; my father when he was only 61, and Fred Rogers at just 71. Both made tremendous global impacts during the courses of their lives, but were sadly unable to finish their final chapters.
Mister Rogers excelled at maintaining a centered presence. When he was with you, it was as if there was no one else that mattered more. During my childhood visit, I asked Mister Rogers if he would like to share the last piece of my favorite Juicy Fruit gum with me. While most adults would think they were being polite and decline, Mister Rogers accepted my small gift and we split the piece down the middle. He understood that the act of sharing with him was important to me, that it gave me pleasure and was my way of connecting with him.
Today we understand the neuroscience behind such events -- when sharing, one experiences greater activity in the brain’s reward center, demonstrating that people are happier when they give rather than consume -- but at the time his reaction to receive my gesture was based on his own innate empathy. Our exchange strengthened our ties to each other. It made me feel closer to him and he to me.
One of the most important lessons I learned from that experience is the power of connection. In these times, when we are facing a huge amount of anxiety and worry, the need for connection is even more critical. There are methods we can employ individually to feel more connected either by engaging more with others (calling our friends or zooming with colleagues), with pleasurable activities (listening to music, eating or cooking a favorite food, walking in nature, partaking in a favorite activity) or in spiritual connections (prayer, meditation). And while the options are plentiful, they all share a prerequisite -- that one slows down, is present in the moment, and is engaged in the activity of their choosing.
Reflecting back at that experience over 40 years ago, I realize that Mister Rogers was in New Haven to meet with my father, not to take a walk with me. And yet, due to his power of deep connection, the story I remember is my walk with Mister Rogers and how special he made me feel.