's Review No: 5

Or, “My Personal Opinions on Death and Friendship”

ipoyI was raised as a conservative Christian. My boyfriend has been an atheist his entire life. There are other reasons that our childhoods seem totally alien to each other, mostly because he grew up having outdoor adventures in Alaska and I grew up watching movies in New Mexico. He is the person you want on your team for a zombie apocalypse. I am the person you want on your team for Trivial Pursuit.

The religion difference is significant. I believed, up until only several years ago, not exactly in divine orchestration, but in fate– that everybody was pretty much going to live the life that destiny mapped for them, and that we all had a certain amount of time assigned to us before we must die. That way of thinking abruptly stopped for me when my friend Tony died in a car accident on his way to work one morning. I know a lot of people say this about their friends who have died, but Tony was the actual nicest person in the world, and it was total bullshit that a single driving mistake meant he was gone. Fate was bullshit. Death was bullshit. “Divine orchestration” was for people who couldn’t handle that life was random and cruel.

My boyfriend was compassionate, but didn’t understand why I was so profoundly affected. People die, that’s what happens to all people. Did I not know that? It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand losing someone close– his mother passed away from cancer before we started dating. His mother, you guys. And he’s so peaceful about it. Definitely sad, but everyone dies sometime, so it’s not this gut-wrenching tragedy.

Since then I’ve watched him mourn the gradual death of his grandfather and the sudden one of a close childhood friend. He was sad, and for a little while he was even angry, but he gets as much peace– and probably even more– from the thought that death is completely normal, universal, and expected as I ever got from the funerals of my childhood, talking about how the dearly departed was in heaven with a brand-new body, and was dancing with Jesus, and that we really should be happy for him or her, not sad– those of us left behind were the unlucky ones.

The death of my friend was not the single event that transformed my religious beliefs; that has a lot to do with my approximately twenty years in church or private Christian school and my relationships with people both in and outside those groups. But certain overly-religious behaviors now make me cringe– especially the language concerning death and funerals. Like when people say that “God called her home” or “needed him in heaven.” Or when they fantasize about the dearly departed “hanging out in Paradise” with other deceased people they knew, which has never struck me as anything but self-indulgent. Or when people try to glean significance and a message out of their last interactions with the deceased, as if people start speaking for God himself in the twenty-four hours before they pass away. Or when people talk about God’s plan, about how this untimely death is part of this amazing mystery that we can’t understand right now, but someday we’ll see why this was absolutely necessary to further the Kingdom of Heaven or whatever.

Or really any time someone implies that the creator of the entire universe is trying to personally communicate with them through events major or minor. Like, “Thanks for this nice parking space, God!” Or, “God sure used that deadly car accident to get my attention!”

Just… REALLY? It all strikes me as incredibly self-centered and deluded.

Mr-RogersSo this book really wasn’t for me. I was a little bummed by the confrontation that lovely Mister Rogers was one such acutely religious person (though, in fairness, much more sincere and far less annoying). I don’t know why I’m surprised; of course I knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister before I read this book. But for some reason I just thought he would only embody the parts of Christianity that I still admire– just that he was extraordinarily kind, and gentle, and so invested in children that he devoted his life to teaching and respecting them, and making them feel loved, accepted, and safe.

But this book isn’t really about Mister Rogers. It’s about a reporter, Tim Madigan, who allowed himself to be befriended by Fred Rogers (because Mister Rogers famously tried to befriend everyone), and how Madigan’s attitude toward several deaths (including that of Rogers himself) evolved during their friendship. The author believes heavily in divine orchestration. Madigan’s high school classmate was killed in a plane crash to help him cope with the eventual untimely death of his brother (when Madigan and his brother were both adults). His friendship with Rogers, and visits with Rogers, and the deaths of two of Rogers’ dear friends, were all orchestrated to fortify Madigan for his upcoming personal tragedy. Rogers’ worldview, TV work, and numerous other friendships and influences are only mentioned in the periphery, if at all.

I’m Proud of You contains lots of fate and Master Plan discussion. It attempts to find significance in everyday interactions. It imagines meetings in heaven of people who never actually met in real life. It talks of the thin veil between this life and the next. If that’s your scene, fine, but I full-body-eye-rolled my way through it and had to force myself to keep reading.

For example, in WHAT WAS TO BE THE LAST (omg, fate) meeting between Madigan and Rogers, Madigan was describing his brother’s death after his long battle with lung cancer. Steve Madigan was asleep, and then suddenly lurched out of bed and raised his arms, and died soon after because he couldn’t catch his breath. “A gesture of triumph,” said our Mister Rogers of Steve’s outstretched arms. Yes, because clearly this man was victoriously congratulating himself for dying, not lifting himself out of bed because he couldn’t breathe.

Mr-Rogers1I want to focus instead, perhaps selfishly, on the characteristics of Rogers that made him almost universally loved. Madigan notes Rogers’ “unashamed insistence on intimacy.” He practically demanded to be not just your friend, but your close friend. Reporters famously had trouble getting him to talk about himself because Rogers was too busy trying to get to know the reporters, and Madigan was no exception. Rogers was genuinely interested in everyone, and invested time and energy into anyone who reached out to him, and as a result was friends with many perhaps-unlikely people. A famous example was the guy who handed out towels at the pool at his health club.

This unashamed insistence on intimacy reminds me of my aforementioned nicest-person-in-the-world friend Tony. Tony knew everybody, and not just their names. He always commented to our trash guy on how their favorite college football teams were doing. He knew the names of all the radiation ladies, even though we only saw one of them for a minute or two once a week, and he knew which stations they usually worked and what was going on in their lives. He’d carry on long conversations with the notoriously grouchy snackbar lady. Of course he wasn’t as super-gentle and sweet as Rogers– we worked in an industrial shipyard, so we all swore and gave each other a hard time now and then, but he was a sincere friend and a great listener, and was one of the few people to give me any good advice the entire four years I worked there. I thought we were sort of special friends, but really, he was like that with everyone. Just like Fred Rogers was.

When Tony died (see BULLSHIT, above), a mass email went out to everyone in our specific section, and several of his friends offered to forward it to people in other sections, because of course Tony’s friendships weren’t confined to people in his own group. I wondered if anyone had thought to tell the trash guy. Or the radiation ladies. I wanted to find them, but realized I didn’t even know their names.

More than once, Tim Madigan likens talking to Fred Rogers as talking to God or Jesus himself. This really bothers me. Obviously Rogers was an exceptional human being, and wise, and influential, but do we really have to deify him? I doubt Rogers would have appreciated it, for one thing, but it also takes the responsibility for incredible kindness off of our “lowly” shoulders. Rogers wasn’t an angel, and neither was my friend Tony. They were regular, compassionate guys who decided to invest in the people around them. I could try that. I should be kinder, and more patient, and less judgmental.

If you love Mister Rogers (as you should!), you’d be better served by reading some of the books he wrote himself. Or by spending twenty or so minutes on YouTube. Watch a young, passionate Rogers successfully defend public television funding to the U.S. Senate. Watch PBS’s auto-tune remix of some of Rogers’ inspiring lines. Watch his daily sign-off, about how he likes you just the way you are. My favorite is this video, in which he sings “It’s You I Like” to a bashful Joan Rivers.

You probably don’t need to read this book.

7 comments to Or, “My Personal Opinions on Death and Friendship”

  • emmalita/rochelle

    You slay me, Chanohack. Beautifully written.

  • Berry

    His friend died just to help him cope later? Good grief, I can’t even begin to tell you how angry that makes me. How can a grown-up person think like that? Shouldn’t we all leave that kind of self-centered solipsism behind at twelve? Gah.

    This review, however, is amazing. Since I’m not American, Mister Rogers means nothing to me, but your words kept me interested. Great stuff.

    • Chanohack

      Oh geez– I guess I should have introduced him! Sorry. He ran a public TV program for kids for almost 40 years because he was so grossed out by what passed for “children’s television.” He ended every episode with a message to the viewers, saying he was proud of (us) and liked (us) just the way (we) are. He was really, really sweet. And gentle. And accepting.

      I wish I had written him a fan letter, because he answered every single one. :)

      Here’s a YouTube video of his final sign off, which is lovely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAttFerhtnw

      (I hope it’s available for you!)

      • Berry

        Oh, that’s okay, I knew he had something to do with children’s television, and was very beloved. I meant more the emotional level.

    • Emmalita

      He was like the dad/grandfather/teacher that we all wished we had, but he was on our tv for about 30 minutes 5 days a week.

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