Doubt, Truth, and Daniel Tiger

Since its release in early June, the Fred Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, has been quietly taking America by storm. It’s being called the film “America needs right now” — and that is no exaggeration. Reviewers from the New York Times  to Rolling Stone report audiences moved to tears and cheers by the inspiring story of the gentle man who taught us all how to love each other and ourselves.

I, too, laughed and cried my way through the film. Fred Rogers’ graciousness and deep care for children and adults alike made me feel, somehow, that he cared for me, too, and reminded me of all the ways I am already loved and capable of loving.

But the part that had me practically dousing my popcorn in tears came in the clip of a lesser-known Neighborhood duet between Daniel Tiger and Lady Aberlin called “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake.” Yes, you read that right. On a television show for children, Fred Rogers had the audacity to let an adorable stuffed Tiger voice one of humanity’s deepest fears. Daniel’s part of the song goes like this:

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not like anyone else I know
When I’m asleep or even awake
Sometimes I get to dreaming that I’m just a fake
I’m not like anyone else
Others I know are big and are wild
I’m very small and quite tame
Most of the time I’m weak and I’m mild
Do you suppose that’s a shame?
Often I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not supposed to be scared, am I?
Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake
Wondering isn’t it true that the strong never break
I’m not like anyone else I know
I’m not like anyone else

Cue the tears.

Everyone, in the dark, shameful parts of themselves, has asked questions like these. I certainly have. On very bad days, I’ve turned out the lights and cowered in a corner, unable to shake the feeling that I’m wrong, that I’m a fraud or too sensitive, or that I just don’t fit in. But I mostly keep these episodes to myself until I get over it.

But that feeling never fully leaves.

And here is the brave genius of Fred Rogers: he said these scary thoughts out loud, through an adorable tiger puppet, no less! And in so doing, he made a way for others to do the same.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” employs the conceit that Daniel Tiger was an alter-ego of sorts for Fred, so by the time “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a Mistake” plays, the audience also understands that it’s not just Daniel speaking, but Fred Rogers himself. And for heaven’s sake, if Fred Rogers can battle fear, doubt, and insecurity, then who am I to be ashamed of the same?

But it gets even better.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a mistake” is a duet. After Daniel sings his fears and doubt, Lady Aberlin steps in with words of love and truth:

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping When you are waking
You are my friend It’s really true
I like you Crying or shaking or dreaming or breaking
There’s no one mistaking it: You’re my best friend
I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping When you are waking
You’re not a fake
You’re no mistake
You are my friend

In true Mister Rogers fashion, these words point to Daniel’s intrinsic value apart from anything he may do or feel as well as his personal value as a friend. Lady Aberlin’s words never invalidate Daniel’s feelings; they simply offer the perspective of a loving friend who sees things a little differently.

And the song doesn’t stop there. Instead, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake” wraps up with Daniel Tiger and Lady Aberlin singing each of their parts at the same time. Daniel’s words of doubt and fear intertwine with Lady Aberlin’s words of love and truth, and together, they form a beautiful counterpoint. This duet paints an encouraging picture for both for those struggling and those who wish to help others: doubt and truth can and should coexist. We don’t have to “fix” everything or even feel as if things are perfect. It’s enough to feel our darker feelings, speak out loud about them, and find comfort in someone who loves us.

It’s enough to let the truth wash over us even in the midst of our doubt.

It’s enough to place doubt and hope side by side and let the two parts weave together into a lovely duet.

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