How Mr. Rogers Helped Me on the Road to Mindfulness

Bob Mayer, Director of Veteran Services, Mount Wachusett Community College

June 6, 2019

The Directors of Veteran Services at small community colleges typically direct themselves and a few work-study students.  There are always a hundred things to do and never enough time to do them.  Just when you start making progress, you are inevitably interrupted.  The person interrupting is often in a state of unnecessary panic, believing their concern is the most urgent matter to be addressed.  You realize, of course, this is not the case.  It often seems to be just more than you can handle.  What can you do without tearing out your hair or banging your head against the wall? 

Recently, I saw the 2010 film; Mr. Rogers and Me. Director, Benjamin Wagner, had Fred Rogers as a Nantucket neighbor.  In this heartwarming film, Wagner’s experiences as well as those of Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg and others are shown.  Rogers was quoted as saying to one, “Talking to you is the most important thing in the world I should be doing now!”  Wow! This struck me as a wonderful but completely impractical idea.  It will never work in my insanely busy world.  But, then again, could it?

I watched the movie on a Friday evening so I had two days away from work to stew on this “most important thing now” concept.  It just would not leave me alone.  Frankly, the arguments I have with myself are most exasperating! Finally, I gave in to the idea of trying it at work, though I knew it would most likely fail.

Monday was a typical day.  There were at least 25 items on the “to-do” list. All important.  All urgent. The first student to come into the office was a frequent visitor.  He has what I refer to as a “subterranean panic threshold.”  Immediately, I made a mark on my list so I would know where to resume.  Then, I diverted all of my attention to this veteran student.  I didn’t think of the many other things I had to do.  Instead, as Mr. Rogers advised, “talking to this student was the most important thing I could be doing now.”

To my utter amazement, this wasn’t hard at all.  Quite the opposite. It was incredibly easy.  Actually, it was liberating.  I was, for those moments, left off the hook.  Nothing else mattered. I was free, indeed obligated, to devote all of my focus to this student. Psychologists call this “mindfulness.”  Mr. Rogers, I suspect, would just consider it being a kind human being.

The complete concentration on this student facilitated active listening, reflection and a proposed course of action.  He came to me because he was concerned that he did not immediately hear back from his voc-rehab case manager.  I told him it was too soon to worry. It was also too soon to contact the case manager again.  I suggested that, this coming Friday, he could worry a little and then reach out to the case manager again.  He heard from the case manager on Wednesday.

Since that first student on that Monday, I have implemented the “most important thing” approach daily.  I don’t find it hard; it’s actually easy.  Nevertheless, I do have to remind myself occasionally.  Old habits have a way of lingering. This technique has been quite helpful for me. I don’t feel it has hurt my productivity at all.  If anything, I’m just a little bit better at my job than I was before. Isn’t it nice when mindfulness and kindness converge in a wonderful way?  

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