A long time ago, I attended a lecture about legacy from a gentleman at a planned giving function. The speaker asked everyone in the room to stand up. Then he said, “Remain standing if you remember the first middle and last names of both of your parents.” No one sat down. He continued, “Now, remain standing if you remember the first middle and last names of all four of your grandparents.” This time close to half of the room sat down. The speaker smiled, “Good for you guys still standing. Now…if you know just the first and last names of all eight of your great grandparents remain standing. Everyone else please take your seats.” In a room filled with more than 100 people, two remained standing. His next words have stuck with me since that day. “That is how long it takes for the world to forget you. Two generations removed, and almost no one in this room can tell us the first and last names of their own family.”
Now let’s flash forward to a few years later. I was invited to give a talk about Eric Liddell to a church where I had spoken the previous fall. I initially turned it down telling them I am no Liddell scholar. They should find an actual expert on the man. My friend reminded me that I had mentioned my love for him in my previous talk. The members of the church wanted to know why. Why did I love Eric Liddell enough to mention him in an unrelated talk? I agreed to the talk on those terms and ultimately began my explanation to that audience with a familiar idea, “The world forgets almost everyone, but it hasn’t forgotten Eric Liddell. Let’s see if we can discover some of the reasons why we hold onto his memory when we so aggressively forget almost everyone else.”
This idea remains a persistent side project of mine. Most of us will live, die, and fade into a memory our own relatives will struggle to recall. Then a rare person like Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man, comes along. His life never seems to leave us. Books, plays, and movies continue to be written about him though he died nearly 130 years ago and is by no means the only person to ever carry a terrible physical burden with grace. Why do we remember Eric Liddell? He is neither the only committed Christian athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics nor the only missionary to die in service to the Gospel. Yet Liddell returns to our memories again and again. I’ve personally read three biographies (here is my favorite), the chapter from Eric Metaxas’s book 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, and seen two movies featuring the man’s exploits. The fact that so much material has been produced over the seven decades since his death that I had to choose which resources to best invest my time in as I tried to learn more about him demonstrates my point. We can’t let some people go. I am building a list of people like Merrick and Liddell, men and woman who fascinate me as much as they do almost everyone else. The people I can’t forget.
Last night I had the chance to see the screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a new movie starring Tom Hanks exploring the impact of Fred Rogers on the life of a troubled author given the assignment of profiling him for Esquire magazine. This comes on the heels of a wonderful biography, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, and a beautiful documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Each work generates a new round of articles and commentaries reflecting on the man and his impact. The pool of resources on him grows deeper every day.
Many of us grew up watching his show. Many of us believed we outgrew him, and most of us stopped watching his program long before it ended in 2001. Too many of us made fun of his tender earnestness and soft-spoken demeanor. And yet, nearly two decades since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ended its run and 16 years after his death, we find we can’t let him go. We need him, maybe now more than ever. We fight to hold onto a voice that tells us we are all something special, the image bearers of God. We remind ourselves through his gentle admonitions to love our neighbor, whomever they may be. In a world filled with distraction, we cling to a message that the person right in front of us deserves our full attention especially when that person is a child needing to be reassured. Finally, in an age when the flow of information and advertisements into the lives of our children never ceases, Rogers personified the power of silence and stillness. He encourages us all to stop for a moment and remember the people in our lives who believed in us and supported us. Mr. Rogers teaches us that we stand on the shoulders of generations who made our lives possible and to remember we were all children once.
I love Mr. Rogers. We must reject the idea that he was perfect or a saint just as strongly as he and his wife did. Fred Rogers was simply a disciplined man trying very hard to help children deal with the emotions of growing up in a constructive manner. Just when we all believed we had outgrown him we realized, perhaps too late to honor his efforts as we should have while he lived, we just can’t forget him. We can’t let go of his memory. And I couldn’t be happier to add another name to that list.