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Kent Bernhardt: The forgotten virtue

Kent Bernhardt


Now that we’ve set sail into another fresh year and already broken several New Year’s resolutions, perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going.


Winter is an especially good time to do this. It’s quieter, there’s less social activity, and there’s generally more time to reflect – unless you’re binge watching hot shows on Hulu.


I had the opportunity to dive into my local movie theater a couple of times during the holidays. The Christmas releases were playing in town and a couple of titles caught my eye.


One of them was “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, the story of a cynical writer’s encounter with children’s TV host Fred Rogers in the late 90’s. Tom Hanks portrayed the legendary public television icon who was often a target of parodies on late night comedy shows because, to be honest, no one could possibly be that kind.


Well, Fred Rogers was that kind. In fact, he may have been the 20th century embodiment of kindness.


Maybe the show’s theme song is already playing in your head: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day to be neighborly. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”


So simple. So childlike.


Fred Rogers chose to be kind, but like all of us he had many reasons not to be. “There is no normal life that is free from pain”, he tells the Esquire writer.


The movie reveals that in his childhood, he was overweight and often bullied because of it. He struggled in his relationships with his own children at times, but never stopped being proud of them.


Fred Rogers had a peculiar gift. He possessed the ability to see everyone around him, even total strangers, as a person of value and someone worthy of love. And he treated them as such.


Tom Hanks confessed that he found this portrayal “terrifying”. He knew little of the show growing up, and everyone he spoke with about Rogers told him of his ability to make everyone he encountered feel like they were the most important person in the world at that moment. That’s an intimidating role to play even for a gifted actor like Hanks.


But Hanks captured Mr. Rogers beautifully. As one critic wrote, “Many films will make you laugh, cry, or think. But few will make you want to be a better person. This one does.”


Perhaps that’s why there were tears streaming down my face during some of the pivotal moments of the film. I don’t cry during movies, and I saw “Old Yeller”. Ok, I got a little misty during “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner was playing catch with his deceased father, but as a rule it takes a lot to bring me to tears in a theater.


But there was something about the total kindness of this man and his willingness to share it so freely that touched me. It made me wish I could do the same. I left the theater actually thinking “I wish I could be that kind.”


And perhaps, just perhaps, that would be a worthy goal going forward into this new year.


Kindness hasn’t been fashionable the past several years, but when it’s given or encountered, we realize it never went out of style. We’ve just forgotten it’s there.


Fred Rogers taught us that kindness can be all around us, ready to be tapped, shared, and experienced in return.


Won’t you be my neighbor?


Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

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