Originally published by Slate
A doctor on the television is saying that locking children up in cages away from their parents could be considered child abuse. It is strange to hear this being spelled out—it’s like a herpetologist popping up in your kitchen to shout that rattlesnakes aren’t toys. You never thought they were, but the obvious is being asserted with desperation, afraid that it won’t be believed. It is bad to rip children from their mothers and fathers, the doctor says. Really.
This kind of expert reassurance achieves the opposite result: It signals a bent axis. The normal things feel off. These days, I am not sure how to be—or how to feel—from one minute to the next. Over breakfast on a sunny day in my quiet neighborhood, I look at photographs of children in large cage enclosures sleeping on the floor. They’ve been taken from their parents after traveling hundreds or thousands of miles, back when they were still simply children and not yet pawns in a political game.
This is not who we are, someone says on Twitter, grief-stricken. Someone else, equally affected, replies, Yes, it is. You can project how the argument will unfold in both directions. We are better than this. No, we’re not. Both sides believe taking children from parents and putting them in cages is abhorrent and must stop, but things are so dire, and we’re so unsure of how we got here, that we’ll spar over which matters more: a) appealing to an ideal America that never was because we need something good to aspire to and rally around, or b) insisting that truth matters more than finding motivation in false nostalgia, since tolerating lies is what got us to this place. Both are groping for a hook to hang a common moral imperative on. Both are trying to be ethical, to do good.
My sympathies are intellectually with the latter but my emotions are with the former. I too am starved for some simple clear consensus we don’t have—for some stable, shared definition of good and evil (or how children should be treated) that illuminates the way forward without crumbling into quibbles and doubts. But we don’t have that. Not in the public square: The Overton window of sayable ideas hasn’t just shifted, it’s gone. And we don’t always have the luxury of moral certainty in private, either: We must question our own judgments because we know more now than we once did—about racism, and misogyny, and imperialism—and we know that we have been deformed by these things. It’s not just that there isn’t a perfectly “good” America we can navigate toward together; it’s that even our private feelings are tainted by the ways we’ve been trained to see some people as worth more than others.
If we have a shared frame of reference as Americans, this is it: Our moral failures are what we all have in common. This is all more than destabilizing. It leaves us unmoored, riddled with doubt, unable to even trust ourselves.
It has, for me, been paralyzing, this list of how we’ve failed, and failed, and failed again. It’s tough to figure out how to help these children from this compromised position—how can you do “good” when you feel (in every sense) bad? You can imagine my surprise, then, at finding solace in the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I left the theater feeling a little more competent to help: not just because Fred Rogers largely lives up to his image, not just because he took children seriously in ways we are failing to, and not just because he believed in the importance of naming and acknowledging difficult feelings, but because he was flawed, and struggled and doubted, too.
Goodness, as Fred Rogers repeatedly defined it (and he was an ordained Presbyterian minister), felt, when I was a child, rather simple and obvious. Love thy neighbor. Believe in your own value. You matter. So do other people. Who doesn’t understand those truths? I liked Mr. Rogers, but I found him a little saccharine, maybe even unnecessary.
But the documentary, for those who haven’t seen it (and you should), portrays, among other things, a time of surprising uncertainty late in Rogers’ life; he’s afraid that his efforts to minister to children and help them handle their emotions have failed. I don’t know if it comforted me to see the man who made me think hardest about goodness in my childhood—and inspired me to try to meet its terms—echo the struggles many viewers are having at this dark moment in American history. But it did help me see, as an adult, that the basic questions Mr. Rogers posed, over and over, weren’t as naïve as they once seemed.
“Children have very deep feelings, just the way parents do, just the way everybody does. And our striving to understand those feelings, and to better respond to them, is what I feel is the most important task in the world,” he said.
Right now, that message feels radical.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a meditation on community: It modeled how to look at your fellow people with kind curiosity and to think about all the different ways you liked them. The show did not try to solve the hard problems it had the courage to ask children to think about, but it did encourage you to be sufficient within yourself because you are. You deserve kindness because you are a person. Because you are a person—not because you are of any nationality or creed—you are endowed with (his phrase) “human dignity.”
When comforting children, Fred Rogers famously told them to look for “the helpers” in times of trouble. The gentle invitation was, of course, to grow up to become helpers. It’s a challenge I am feeling keenly.
When I look up from the heart-rending images on my screen of children in cages, the world around me still looks normal. My neighborhood looks fine, but my neighborhood is also on fire. My dog, sitting next to me, stretches out and wants her belly rubbed. This test of basic assumptions has rent a hole in normal, and what once felt natural—sitting here, on the couch—no longer feels right. Very little does.
Those impatient with all this agonizing over how to feel will point out, with some justice, that what matters more is what you do. But this is really the same question: Feeling drives action. You must feel worthy of acting. This means enough self-acceptance to get you going, maybe along the lines Mr. Rogers taught: If these children have intrinsic human value, you do too, at least enough to help them. This, I think, is one reason so many people leave this documentary in tears. Writing during one of his darker struggles, Fred Rogers observed that he still couldn’t trust himself, and wondered why. But the note ends with an understanding that when children need you, you keep going: “The hour cometh and now is, and I’ve got to do it. Get to it, Fred. Get to it.”
It also means accepting that there are limits to even the pessimistic relativity many of us consider honest: Everything is not just shades of gray. Everything is not just a small variation of terrible. The government has, as usual, tried to cloak the moral starkness of this current horror with obfuscation: They will lie about enforcing nonexistent laws and it will not work, because some things are true and some things are not. The faces of the children they have separated from their parents speak truth in ways America, as presently constructed, can’t and won’t.
Some of the kids in the photo are hiding under Mylar blankets, so I can’t see them—a foot peeks out here, a leg there. I wonder what need they’re trying to soothe with their various positions: Is it too bright and they can’t sleep? Too loud? The so-called iceboxes are kept famously cold; are the children using their breath to warm their own pockets of air? What are they feeling?
We will not write our way out of this. We will have to do hard, brave, costly things. But there is value in remembering that figuring out how to do good has always been a present-tense problem; the clarity of hindsight is not a luxury we have. And at present, people are in need—so when your own feelings are confused, think of theirs.