Television has, with reason, been blamed for the downfall of modern civility, the loss of values, and many more societal ills. Some “reality” TV shows, like those that follow the lives of rich families, are often exaggerated and manipulated so that they provide an escape for viewers. Other “make-believe” TV shows, like Black Mirror or The Handmaid’s Tale, create extreme versions of our present reality that are so seemingly plausible, they result in great unease.
Yet is television (and more broadly, media), a mirror on who we already are, the instigator of who we are becoming, or the result of who we’ve become?
Perhaps it’s not that television is simply to be blamed or blessed, but a complicated medium whereby we see ourselves as a society and humans at times raw and not so sanitized, or filtered and scripted, or beautiful and hopeful—sometimes all at the same time. But it does have the power to set forth norms on how we behave. For generations, some children’s television programs have shown how this medium may model, rather than lecture, the importance of self-awareness, empathy, and connection.
One television program that has undoubtedly seen a resurgence in attention is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Its popularity reflects how hungry the world is to learn how to deal with our often overwhelming and confusing world. Mister Rogers was the first to democratize Emotional Intelligence (EI) on mass media (he even addressed the U.S. Congress on the role and responsibility of public media) as a force for good. Mister Rogers, an understated radical, leveraged the power of television to talk about the most difficult work of knowing and being with our emotions, and of the importance of empathy and compassion as a way to work together as neighbors. Whether it was the simple act of dipping his feet in a kiddie pool on a hot summer day (he actually filmed it in chillier April) and sharing a towel with Officer Clemmons (the first recurring African-American character on children’s television) after rising national racial tension when a motel owner dumped acid into a whites-only pool to rid a group of black and white protesters, or his hand puppets talking about assassination the day after Robert Kennedy was killed, he showed what empathy truly was.
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In the first episode of a compelling new podcast, Finding Fred, host Carvell Wallace interviews writer Ashley Ford on the impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Ford notes that “empathy is difficult because people don’t have empathy for themselves.” Indeed, it is often easier to watch reality shows that don’t require us to confront the ugly side of humanity because that might mean we have to confront the ugly side of inner selves or our contributions. Is my tweet adding to a productive conversation to bring people together or adding gasoline to the fire that divides?
As James Baldwin said in 1963, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” After all, how can we show up for others if we can’t show up for ourselves? Empathy is the opposite of avoiding discomfort. Empathy for others starts with empathy for ourselves. James Baldwin knew that. Mister Rogers knew that.
It is easier said than done. Empathy can bring us to take on the cognitive or affective understanding of what someone else is thinking or feeling. If not managed properly, we experience empathic distress which leads to burnout, withdrawal, and even depression. When this happens with ourselves, rumination and self-pity can occur. In the rather smart comedy, The Good Place, which features four dead people who find themselves mistakenly in the “Good Place” when they “should” be in the Bad, a few of these characters get overly caught up in trying to be “good” (e.g. sacrificing health to make someone else happy) or doing the “right” thing (e.g. weighing every possible consequence of an ethical dilemma).
Empathic concern, or compassion, enables us to understand and feel without going down a rabbit hole. Activating the part of the brain associated with matriarchal love, this type of empathy allows us to sit with our raw emotions (both light and dark) and act. This includes turning inward and having empathy and compassion for ourselves without sinking into a pit of despair or being afraid to face moments that are not wrapped in pretty bows and sprinkled with Instagram-worthy fairy dust. Facing ourselves and others with empathy allows us to confront the reality of reality so that we can co-create a better reality for everyone.
As Mister Rogers said, “if we’re too scared about fights, we’ll never do things together—ever!”
“Empathic concern, or compassion, enables us to understand and feel without going down a rabbit hole.”