Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mr. Rogers on unconditional love

Summary: Unconditional love is an attitude we adopt and a feeling we cultivate because of its salutary effects on people.

Fred Rogers ended many episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood with the reminder that "people can like you exactly as you are," an expression he learned from his grandfather.

Episode 1606 of the program featured Lady Aberlin singing to Daniel the following song:
I'm glad
You're the way you are
I'm glad
You're you
I'm glad
You can do the things that you can do
I like
How you look
I like the way
That you feel
I feel that you
Have a right to be quite pleased with you
I'm glad
You're the way you are
I think
You're fine
I'm glad
You're the way you are
The pleasure's mine
It's good
That you look the way you should
Wouldn't change you if I could
'Cause I'm happy you are you.
Do these statements mean people shouldn't bother improving themselves? If others like them as they are, is there no incentive to get better at things?

Well, it's possible that conditional love could force people to try harder in order to seek approval, but at what cost and for what benefit? I think the cost is big: If you're not certain that anyone loves you, life can seem very scary, hopeless, and pointless. And I think there are plenty of other factors motivating people to improve in areas that matter without trying to use love as another carrot and stick. When people are in a rough emotional situation, they may not even have the motivation or support to undertake self-improvement, and might either wallow in despair or seek approval in unproductive ways -- including, as the song hints, through trying to look more attractive on the outside.

There's a time and place for incentives, but love by and for another person is one domain where trying to introduce incentives does more harm than good because of the nature of human psychology. Consider how popular the theme is in Christianity that God loves you no matter what: This is a powerful idea that can transform people's lives.

I feel unconditional love for a person even at the same time that I might prefer him/her to be different. If the person is open to advice on changing, I'll suggest things, but at the same time, I feel that even if the person doesn't change, it's okay -- s/he is still a special individual whose feelings matter just the same. In my mind, unconditional love is closely tied with hedonistic utilitarianism: When I realize that an organism feels happiness and suffering, at that point I realize that the organism matters and deserves care and kindness. In this sense, you could say the only "condition" of my love is sentience.

From "Then Your Heart is Full of Love" by Josie Carey Franz and Fred Rogers (1984):
When your heart can sing another's gladness,
Then your heart is full of love.
When your heart can cry another's sadness,
Then your heart is full of love.
When your heart has room for everybody,
Then your heart is full of love.

I'll close with another Fred Rogers song, possibly my favorite. It hints at this idea that the other person's feelings are the reason for our love of him or her.
It's you I like,
It's not the things you wear,
It's not the way you do your hair--
But it's you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you--
Not the things that hide you,
I hope that you'll remember
Even when you're feeling blue
That it's you I like,
It's you yourself,
It's you, it's you I like.


  1. Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is definitely not just a show for kids. Many of the most mature attitudes I hold toward life I learned from it.

  2. Mr. Rogers was a vegetarian who seemed so kind to me. Although I didn't grow up on his show, I loved the few episodes I saw later on, and I think he did a lot of good in the world by setting the example he showed so many. I loved reading this as well as your paper on Mr. Rogers.

  3. Thanks, Robin! Yep, that's correct.

    There's a nice xkcd cartoon about Mr. Rogers that has the following text when you hover over the image: "Mr. Rogers projected an air of genuine, unwavering, almost saintly pure-hearted decency. But when you look deeper, at the person behind the image ... that's exactly what you find there, too. He's exactly what he appears to be."