On Black Friday, I saw “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” in theaters. It’s based on the true story of a 1998 Esquire feature story about Mister Rogers by journalist Tom Junod.
Junod (Lloyd Vogel in the film) is an investigative journalist assigned to write a 400-word puff piece on Mister Rogers for the “Hero” issue of Esquire. Vogel, a new dad who is estranged from his own recently repentant and dying father, is not pleased about the assignment—he’s a “serious” journalist! Predictably, Mister Rogers isn’t content to simply answer Vogel’s questions. He wants to be Lloyd’s friend.
I won’t give away the entire plot of the movie, but I was most struck by the understated, subtle power of Mister Rogers’ relentless focus on a simple faith, self-discipline, relationships, trauma, forgiveness, honesty and feelings. Knowing this man changed Lloyd's outlook on life and his relationships with his father, wife and son forever.
For me, this movie was a much-needed injection of hope and optimism during a season of deep questioning about life’s Big Questions. It reminded me of the power we can find in assuming the best of others, believing we are all doing the best we possibly can.
It made me think about the ways we interact with each other and how that so often plays out, especially during holidays. This season can be so tough on relationships.
Visiting or hosting extended family, attending work Christmas parties, being confronted with not-so-happy childhood memories, missing people who have died or become estranged, being confronted with our friends' or loved ones' choices we don’t agree with—real-world holidays are rarely Hallmark perfect.
Unfortunately, this time of year presents plenty of opportunities for us to pick apart people we don't understand, have hurt us in the past or simply rub us the wrong way.
We are experts at reading into people’s words and actions, dissecting every interaction like a scientist studying a microscopic molecule. We have advanced degrees in the art of analysis and assigning blame. And let’s be honest. That post-gathering debrief can make us feel vindicated, smart and superior… in the moment. But eventually, all of that negativity will eat us alive. It will chip away at relationships until there is little trust or appreciation left. It creates unhealthy triangulation dynamics in workplaces, friend circles, churches and families. Pretty soon, we’re sitting around tables staring awkwardly at people we’ve been ripping apart for 25 years, unsure of how to authentically interact with them.
But Mister Rogers made me think. What if we just… stopped? What if we acknowledged that so many of these continual offenses arise from our own insecurity, anxiety, annoyance and unforgiveness rather than the malicious intent of others? What if we assumed someone might have made a careless comment rather than a mean one? What if we just rolled our eyes, shrugged our shoulders and let it go instead of adding another item to our mental grudge list? What if we vowed to dodge the debrief this year instead of tainting another person’s view of the one who offended us? What if we went directly to that person and opened up an honest conversation? What if we, like Mister Rogers, saw each human being as a child of God worthy of our attention, curiosity, respect and care?
How would our relationships be transformed?
I think these changes in our interactions have to begin with the fundamental way we view other people. Assuming the best of others is a very, very intentional discipline that doesn't happen accidentally—because none of us naturally do this! This discipline requires the expectation that people will mess up... and we will love them anyway.
It forces us to remember that every person is carrying around baggage full of their own complicated history that sometimes causes them to behave poorly. Assuming the best also reminds us that we, too, drag our own bag of imperfections to the table. We were all children once, and some of us had our needs met better than others. As Bryan Stevenson says, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
Assuming the best also requires us to choose not to be offended. Choose to offer grace instead of gossip. Read into others’ words as much as you’d like them to read into yours. Take baby steps toward forgiveness. Open your mouth and speak honest words about your feelings directly to that person instead of about them. Stop trying to change or control others, and practice blessing them instead. Bring light, not darkness to your holiday gatherings. Clarity, not confusion.
Sometimes, this is way less serious and just looks like letting go of differences of opinion, belief, choices, preferences, politics or culture. "Not for me... cool for you!"
Tiny acts of genuine love, acceptance and even silence or healthy boundaries possess more power than you could ever imagine. You can't change others, but you CAN change how you interact with them.
As we all know, there are absolutely times when people do have malicious intentions. There are so many relational dynamics that won’t fit into a tiny essay, and I’m the last person who would suggest any of us sacrifice our own safety or mental, spiritual or emotional health in the name of assuming the best of others. Openly hostile, abusive or hateful behavior should never be tolerated.
I’m simply wondering how we can seek to recognize and acknowledge humanity and holiness in every person rather than continuing cycles of unfair, unfounded and unaddressed assumptions.
"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" reminded me of so many things I deeply believe, yet struggle to put into practice all the time with all the people. Maybe the place to start is keeping this idea in mind, regardless of who we're interacting with:
"I think the best thing we can do is to let people know that each one of them is precious." --Mister Rogers