Media for Children of all Ages: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

To my view, it has always been as hard to make substantial media programs for children as it has been to make successful programs about children’s media. Morgan Neville’s beloved documentary about the TV program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” manages to do both and more. The 94-minute feature documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, not only takes us behind the scenes in Fred Rogers TV set and life, but it also shares potent insights about children, their relationships with adults, and our primal spirit.

Not many people knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who left seminary to develop a unique form of ministry just as the new-fangled technology called “television” was appearing in affluent Western countries. Few of us also realize that it may well have been Fred Rogers who saved public television in the United States and who studied child development as part of the team which included Eric Ericson and other academic thought leaders.

The film introduces us to all these little known “backstories” surrounding Fred Rogers, as told through archival footage, as well as interviews with co-workers, family, children’s TV experts, and friends. And the film is not afraid to also venture into more controversial areas such as Rogers’ attitudes toward and relationships with what we now call LGBTQ issues and the protesters who hated Rogers for creating a “generation of entitlement.”

However, I felt this film was about much more than this and the full spectrum of other engaging topics it covered such as race, 9/11, music, children’s TV, and Fred Roger’s hidden traits and trajectory. At the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart–and the heart of this film is about how Rogers opened the hearts of virtually every child and adult he met. In the process of our own hearts are opened and what seems to be a documentary screening experience is transformed into worshipping within a temple.

Toward that end, I felt that the total strangers that I was watching the film with became solidified as if family. We all applauded at the end and many sat in silence. My wife and I could not restrain tears more than once and these were not due to the tear-jerking antics of maudlin and manipulative Hollywood melodramas. These tears were induced by the sustained moments of penetrating truth and profound genuineness whether spoken by children or adults.

Fred Rogers found a way to drop the mask and be an authentic expression of Divine spirit which drew forth the best from all those he interviewed. He loved silence and thus created space for others to come forth rather than jamming their wavelength with verbosity and pomposity. He seemed genuinely interested in each person with whom he spoke and he could maintain such interest long past the breaking point for most of us.

Indeed he made every child (and person) feel special. His stage manager reveals how it would be natural for most media professionals to want to have some of the children who were trouble-makers, especially the “spoiled brats”, to leave the studio. But Fred Rogers included everyone and made even the most difficult children feel special and loved. He not only reached them but he inspired civil behavior and he motivated positive change. Literally, thousands of children thanked him for his inspiration years later when they were teens and adults.

Although I am not into hero worship, I could not help but feel I was watching something like a second-coming of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Lao-Tzu or another spiritual leader disguised as an ordinary children’s storyteller–a sheep in worker bee’s clothing. Bible verses such as “suffer the little children to come unto me” and “blessed are the peacemakers” entered my head as I watched the film. I also thought of the Tao’s simple harmony with the flow of life as I watched Rogers exemplify tranquility, non-resistance, fluidity, and humility.

Because he was so gentle and fey, if not fay, Mr. Rogers was sometimes written off as a flake or a fake since no one could possibly be that saintly. And yet, despite his humanness, the off-camera Rogers is revealed to be much the same as his TV image–inclusive, non-judgmental, generous, and above all loving.

Indeed the film is a love letter to children of all ages and an expansion of the spiritual command to “love your neighbor” and in this case, your neighborhood. It is filmed for folk of all ages and stages and far more than a tribute or biopic. Like the other great spiritual classics, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not just a celebration of one life, but the expression of the One Life that we all share–and an invitation to share it deeply with others.

You are the Medium That Matters

Throughout the two dozen “Media That Matter” blogs that have been published over the past two years, I have written about the media that we consume. But what about the media that we create? Although I have sought to point toward literally dozens of examples of elevating media in most formats, these are all films, songs, photos, programs, websites, etc., made by other people. What if we switch our mode of action from the consumer to the creator?

 

Perhaps as a child or later in life you wished to be an actor, singer, film-maker, dancer, photographer, poet, sculptor, painter, or song-writer? What’s stopping you? What’s stopping me? A friend of mine used to say “don’t die with your music still in you” and I know she is right. What’s keeping us from creating media that matter?

 

People used to complain that it was too expensive to become a film-maker. But today you can create films on your cell phone or on inexpensive cameras. Now there are technologies by which you can shoot and reshoot without wasting “film” and time on lab costs and delays.

 

Another excuse that is often given is, “I’m too old–you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But George Bernard Shaw said he wrote his best plays after he turned seventy. Both classical cellist Pablo Casals and blues guitarist B.B. King were transformed into much younger men when they performed in their eighties. Conversely, one might claim that he is too young to make anything significant. But that never stopped the teen-agers Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, nor the five year old touring prodigy named Mozart.

 

In short, you and I can create inspirational, consciousness-raising and educational media at any age if we are passionate about doing so. And there is something very healthy, indeed nourishing, about letting our voices be heard in new and creative ways.

 

What would you like written on your tombstone: “Screened Friday the 13th parts 1-28, fifty times” or, “saved lives” or, “was a caring parent” or, “created works of inspiration?” For most of us the choice is clear cut–and yet that does not prevent us from becoming addicted to over nine hours of media consumption per day per person in the United States alone. It becomes impossible to hear myself think if my head is swimming with electronic programming created by others. Who am I beneath that programming?

 

When I discover who I am, I too have stories to tell, and not the same old narratives told in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue. Indeed, I am a medium of light. I need to be careful with how I use the word “medium” in a blog about spirituality because many think of mediums as people who channel the dead. But what about those who channel the living? What about those who channel themselves?

We can transmit ourselves by virtue of the fields of radiance which surround, yet also include us. We can be emissions of divine light.

 

That is the true calling in media, to be a medium of light who broadcasts creativity, divine uplift, and motivates people to believe in themselves. In that sense, we are the true media. We are born to be creators and not just consumers, the real, the new, and the true media.

 


DR. TOM COOPER is currently guest scholar at the East-West Center, University of Hawaii, Stanford and Berkeley and professor at Emerson College (Boston).  Musician, black belt, and playwright, he has written eight books and two hundred published articles, been advisor to the Elders Project (with Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and others),  co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is co-publisher of MEDIA ETHICS magazine.

 

Media Animals Who Matter

When I was a child, like many of my peers I enjoyed TV programs about animals such as Lassie, Mr. Ed, and Rin Tin Tin. As I grew older I took note of the endless parade of other animal stars from Flipper and Cheetah to the animated celebrities like Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and Nemo.

Interspersed with these endearing anthropomorphized animals were “real” media animals such as those depicted in the famous documentaries Winged Migration and March of the Penguins. Additionally, I became exposed to the long list of mediated “faux animals” like schmoos, smurfs, and minions, not to mention re-imagined species such as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and a wide range of beasts introduced via science fiction and horror films.

 

From a spiritual standpoint, what has intrigued me is how easily the more idyllic four legged, two winged, and multi-finned characters could open the hearts of audiences, especially of children. Many of these “real” animals have taught us about unconditional love, unwavering loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

The most recent of these real animal heroes to be brought to screen is the Marine Corps German shepherd named Rex, who was paired with Marine Corps lance corporal Megan Leavey at Camp Pendleton (California) in 2003. Leavey learned to be a dog-handler and served with Rex in Fallujah (2005) and Ramadi (2006) during the U.S. war with Iraq.  Throughout the feature film, Megan Leavey, audiences learn to admire both the military dogs who save numerous lives (by sniffing for hidden explosives) and their trainers who constantly face grave danger walking through dangerous mine fields while under attack.

Although one is often moved by such films due to the animal’s exceptional heroism, what seems even deeper is that the canine (or dolphin, cat, horse, or whatever) teaches the human being about love and about regaining primal spirituality. Usually in the “animal bonding” plots, the primary human characters have been wounded or alienated and thus they have difficulty with trust, with relationships, and with living with themselves. It is often the animal who models unconditional giving and loyalty to their human partner such that the wounded human learns to trust first their “pet” and then eventually to trust other humans and life itself.

In Megan Leavey the disheartened and aloof central character is told “think about what Rex taught you about love.” Although the affection between dog (Rex) and human (Megan) is reciprocated, it is indeed Rex the dog who gives unselfishly and which saves the lives of numerous humans by risking his own.

Although Rex initially has anger issues, the audience is willing to forgive these in light of the damage done to the psyche of military animals. After all they have been trained by soldiers and often within the atmosphere of war.

Ultimately, the audience is reminded that many pets and other animals live in a state of “primal spirituality.” They serve without desire for reward and express an innocence and nobility seldom found in their “masters’ personalities.  Whether it is dolphins who rescue unknown sailors at sea, or horses who return their wounded riders to a safe destination, or rescue dogs who risk everything to pull lost skiers from avalanche drifts, audiences are reminded that the greatest courage of all is often expressed by our speechless companions.

It is precisely because animals are speechless that we need media which intercedes and advocates for them. I have heard scientists say that every seven seconds another species disappears on the earth. So whether the seven seconds is accurate or not, these vanishing species certainly need a voice – one which reminds us of the invaluable integrity and importance of animals and one which will present their endangered perspective rather than simply showing the cute, cuddly side of our domesticated friends.

Films like Cowspiracy and Food Inc. help us better appreciate the plight of edible animals while Gore’s, An Inconvenient Sequel and DiCaprio’s Before the Flood help us better understand the mutual fate all species, including humanity, share.  From that standpoint it is essential to support media that educate us about the viewpoint and likely fate of all species.

Films like Megan Leavey help to sensitize human beings to the value, intelligence, character, and heroism of spiritual beings who come in four-legged containers. We humans have no monopoly on spirituality and indeed, from the perspective of other species, we humans are the problem species, the only one which is eliminating all the others.

Moreover, fact-based biopics about courageous animals at risk motivate us to better understand them and take actions on their behalf. Such scripts also remind us of what we are all capable of to the extent we can shed our programming and two-legged pseudo-sophistication. We are reminded that we are all here to serve others, to express loyalty to a higher purpose, and to teach others how to open their hearts by opening our own. Rex does this successfully in Megan Leavey and many animals do this successfully in our lives.

We are often cautioned that the human race must be careful not to stoop to the level of becoming “animals” in a “dog-eat-dog” world. But given how far humans have fallen already, it is more likely that we must rise to the level of those animals who give unconditional love and loyalty.

In that light, it is important for all of us to see role models such as Rex frequently on our screens. For while it was Megan Leavey who deservedly earned a Purple Heart, it was Rex who most revealed a golden one.


DR. TOM COOPER is currently guest scholar at the East-West Center, University of Hawaii, Stanford and Berkeley and professor at Emerson College (Boston).  Musician, black belt, and playwright, he has written eight books and two hundred published articles, been advisor to the Elders Project (with Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and others),  co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is co-publisher of MEDIA ETHICS magazine.

The Inspiration List

The Inspiration List Almost all professional media critics and pundits put out a top 10 or top 100 list of the best films, TV programs, albums, websites, or books of the year. I note that many people question these lists, especially since some choices may seem highly subjective. Indeed many lists have been controversial sinceContinue Reading