Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I saw the quiet and touching movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Tom Hanks does an amazing job as children’s television host Fred Rogers, coming to the aid of a cynical and suffering magazine writer. He reminded me again that healing happens when we choose compassion.
The writer is given the assignment of writing a short profile of Rogers for Esquire magazine, and he initially recoils. He cannot believe that anyone can be as authentically kind as Rogers is on television — and in real life.
But Rogers is the real deal: Loving, patient, kind, gentle. He embodies what the apostle Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
The movie celebrates “the virtues of patient listening, gentleness and the honest expression of feelings,” according to A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times.
Although he was a Presbyterian minister in real life, a man who began every day with Scripture and prayer, Rogers is not a saint in the movie. But he does choose compassion and become involved deeply in the writer’s life.
Clearly, Rogers “suffers with” people. This is the root of the word compassion — com “with,” plus passion “suffer.”
What is his secret? Rogers’ “young viewers trust him because he speaks to them without condescension or pandering,” writes Scott. And he invites his fellow adults to recall their childhoods and hold on to their favorite toys and hurt feelings. “You hold onto them, because they become touchstones of empathy, reminders of the vulnerability and sincerity that are the building blocks of the mature self.”
The healing begins when Rogers draws the writer into honest conversation about his childhood, his feelings and a favorite toy.
In my novel City of Peace, Harley Camden is a pastor — just like Fred Rogers. But he is cynical and suffering at the start of the book, due to the loss of his wife and daughter in a European terrorist attack. Emotionally, he is more like the writer in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Harley is not inclined to choose compassion.
Over time, he develops a relationship with a young Iraqi immigrant named Omar Bayati. Omar has suffered a loss of his own — the murder of his older sister Norah. And Omar has become involved with a group of young men, “the Woodbridge guys,” who are planning a domestic terrorist attack.
“I think Matt Carter is guilty of Norah’s murder,” said Omar to Harley when they were walking together in the Town of Occoquan.
“Any evidence?” asked Harley.
“Tim saw him in the area, going in and out of the building behind our place. And I saw him.”
Harley looked at him, hoping that he would have something more solid. “Is that all?” he asked.
“I think that’s enough. I went to the police this morning, made my report, and they said they would look into it.”
The two approached the river, and Harley looked over to the rocks on the other side. The breeze picked up, stirring the water.
“I’m glad you made your report,” said Harley. “I trust the police to do an investigation. I certainly hope that they find your sister’s killer, whether it is Matt or someone else.”
“It’s got to be him,” Omar huffed.
“I want the killer to be found, just as you do, I really do. But when the case is solved, your family will still be in danger. These Woodbridge guys want to do some serious damage, and they will hurt anyone who gets in their way.”
Omar looked fearful. “I can slow them down, but I cannot stop them.”
“I think you can,” said Harley. “I will help you. As soon as the killer is caught, we will go to the police, you and me.”
As a Christian, Harley believed that God took human form in Jesus, and he preached that members of the church had the responsibility to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. “We will say that you were pressured to take the pictures,” said Harley, “and we will describe how the Woodbridge guys threatened your family.”
“All of that is true.”
“When you realized they were terrorists, you came to me,” Harley continued. “We will take the pictures to the authorities, and describe their connection to the Belvoir plot.”
“But how can I trust the authorities? They system is not fair to people like us. Won’t I be accused of participating in the plot?”
“Not with me by your side,” promised Harley. “I will do everything I can to protect you. I promise you.”
Omar looked at him with confusion. “Why would you to do this for me?”
“Because I want to see justice done,” said Harley. “And because I have compassion for you.” He realized that the only way he could help solve Norah’s murder and save his community was to choose compassion.
Omar gazed out at the water and then back at Harley. He was defenseless. After taking a deep breath, he said, “I’ll do it. I’ll turn on the Woodbridge guys.”
When has a choice to show compassion had a healing effect in your life? Join the conversation through a comment below.