Socially distanced in the neighborhood

What would Mister Rogers say?

This pandemic has taken a toll on us all. Either we are actually experiencing trauma from having to treat people in hospitals, worry about sick family members or bury our dead, or we are worrying about contracting the virus because we work a job in which the government has deemed us essential, or a more accurate term might be sacrificial. Even for those who are stuck at home and do not have care responsibilities — there’s levels of vicarious trauma that can come from reading the news. All the stories about increasing cases, rising deaths, unemployment, people facing evictions, families lining up for food. This is an incredibly traumatic time to be alive.

Every night on the nightly news — they feature a family in America. A family that has lost one parent, both parents, or multiple family members. A family member appears on screen in tears talking about how it all happened so fast. Minutes later, an overwhelmed ICU nurse appears on screen pleading with the community to take the virus seriously. The grief that millions of people in America are experiencing seems only to be compounded by the anger people feel. Anger towards others for not following precautions, anger towards public officials for not controlling this virus, and felt by everybody on some level — anger that we are dealing with this situation; that we can’t see friends or family or live our regular lives.

Recently, I found myself thinking about what an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood would be like in the time of a pandemic. Fred Rogers did not shy away from addressing the broader political context of the world — he knew that these things affected children and positioned the neighborhood within that world. A world where bad things do happen, where things do not always go our way. A world where things may be and feel like they are out of our control, but we can control our reaction to said things. In this time where we are all collectively traumatized, what would Fred Roger say to children, what would he say to adults?

Last year, an essay was published in the New York Times by Mariana Alessandr i where she talks about Fred Rogers’ approach to dealing with anger. She writes “Rogers believed that all children (and adults) get sad, mad, lonely, anxious and frustrated — and he used television to model what to do with these difficult and often strong emotions. He wanted to counter the harmful message kids typically receive, some version of the ever-unhelpful you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Mister Rogers believed that anger was something that wasn’t to be suppressed, but expressed. Like any other emotion humans express, anger is a valid one. Rather than suppress our anger, he believed that we could control the way in which we express it. The article goes on to quote one of Rogers’ songs titled “What Do You do?” from 1968. The first few lyrics go …

Think about all the responses we’ve seen from government officials. Have we seen anyone really, truly hold the grief of people across the screen? Grief for the lives lost and the way of life we’ve lost? Have we seen people on television talk about the anger we are all feeling — towards family members who maybe won’t wear a mask, towards government officials who have ignored this crisis? Instead, we have seen officials either dismiss people’s concerns completely (in the case of Republicans) or be patronizing and condescending when cases go up (in the case of Democrats).

Even in the cases of well meaning people in public health, people have been encouraged to scuttle away their anger and instead use non judgemental approaches that avoid shaming other people. Shame does not help us tackle a pandemic. While this may easy for us in public health, it is not easy for most people — particularly those who may have lost their friends and family. While I believe shame won’t get us anywhere, the anger people feel is real. We shouldn’t bury it.

I, of course, am no Fred Rogers. But I think we can all heed his advice about anger. During the day, I read a lot of headlines and I find myself getting angry throughout the day. I have gotten angry reading headlines for years now. But I’ve learned to channel that anger over the years into energy — energy into helping movements I care about. No longer is anger something that is detrimental (though it certainly is not pleasant) but rather, something that fuels my desire to see a world where we are all taken care of. This can be difficult — it is not easy and it takes work, to channel that anger that can be random and unfocused at times away from individuals and towards power.

If you’re feeling anger, let it drive you towards fighting for justice for those lost. Let it fuel that fire within you.

writer. on twitter as @AShihipar.