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Golis: Why people are eager to find kindness in the world

Why all the fuss about a Mr. Rogers movie? All he asked was that Americans remain generous, tolerant and forgiving. What could possibly go wrong?

Even during the season that celebrates peace on earth and good will toward men (and women), we know that a world inhabited by human beings will never be free of corruption, cruelty and injustice.

Still, folks are feeling especially gloomy these days. Violence and bigotry have become all too commonplace. From video games to movies to television, our entertainments have become obsessed with dark themes. And politics in too many places is defined by division, anger and the impulse to seek out the worst in people.

Perhaps that's why there is all this fuss about the Mr. Rogers movie. Perhaps that's why we are lately seeing signs that people wish for something better.

Close to home in Sonoma County, philanthropy and volunteerism are thriving. In the wake of devastating fires, people are eager to feel like they are part of a community, part of an effort to help people who are hurting.

And then there is the story of Fred Rogers, the TV personality who died 16 years ago.

There was a time when his story might have been called cheesy or worse - fodder for the naive and the guileless.

Just now, however, people are flocking to see the movie in which actor Tom Hanks plays a man who believes that people owe each other love and respect, and Matthew Rhys plays a journalist who becomes a stand-in for all of us cynics - all the people who can't imagine that there's a place in the world for forgiveness.

Mr. Rogers said, “We need to help our children become more and more aware that what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The film is called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” It follows last year's documentary on Rogers' life, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?”

Both remind us that Rogers devoted his life to helping children navigate the ups and downs of life and of childhood. Rogers believed parents too often forget what childhood was like for them. He also was offended by the commercialism, noise and violence that too often passed for children's television programming.

When Rogers is shown talking with a little boy in a wheelchair, or explaining the word “assassination,” we learn again that Rogers' programs were about a lot more than happy talk.

A Republican president - George H.W. Bush - once promoted the idea that the world should become a “kinder and gentler” place.

His plea would become transformed into a marker for sentimentality and weakness, though Bush, as a 19-year-old Navy pilot, had survived being shot down over the Pacific during World War II.

When people mocked a president who wished for a kinder nation, maybe that was the first sign of what would become the nation's corrosive cynicism.

We forget, of course, that when we don't trust anyone, it's not possible for anyone to be trustworthy.

And if no one is trustworthy, we're pretty much out of luck.

Abe Lincoln? George Washington? It wouldn't matter.

We're not going to be a kinder, gentler nation anytime soon. Divisions of geography, race, religion and age are causing us to look past our common interests. (The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Americans in red states and blue states won't even wear the same jeans.)

But we hold close to our hearts the capacity to make a difference where we live - to bring kindness and generosity to our hometowns, our neighborhoods and our families. We can do that all by ourselves.

As Christmas approaches and we bow to our better angels, it might be the right time to follow Mr. Rogers' advice and think about the people who make a difference in our lives.

And it might be the right time to think about what meanness and intolerance are doing to our world. What can be bad about being kind to one another? Why would we wallow in anger when it serves no purpose, except to leave us frustrated and depressed?

Here's hoping better days are ahead. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, everyone.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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