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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Naivete

There are days, I confess, when I ardently wish that I could experience the world in the ways very young children do, without preconceived notions or learned response. The longer I have lived the harder it has become to feel wide eyed wonder, to see freshly and meet each day with eager expectations of surprise and delight.


There are people, rare individuals who have managed to retain that sense, avoiding the Syclla of pretentious innocence and the Charybdis of jaded indifference. It is not effortless, I imagine. Against our daily experience it is difficult to retain the necessary naivete to greet the future without calculated response.


We may see naïve people as unsophisticated, and our received wisdom cautions against those who leave themselves unguarded against catastrophe. Our innermost thoughts may well suggest that those innocents will be enlightened by the world in rueful ways. In truth those who rise above such judgement do not do so out of blindness but out of a far greater wisdom, one that is not calloused by transitory emotions.


At some point in our lives most of us will experience pain, loss, sadness, and sometimes it can be a staggering, drive you to your knee’s moment. In its aftermath, as time progresses our instincts are to close ourselves off from those things that threaten a repetition—even as we inwardly reckon that we cannot control what will come. We whistle past the proverbial graveyard and add some more bricks to the wall of our own humanity, the better to hide behind when the gale forces of calamity threaten.


What I have observed of the truly naïve is not a willing away or walling off from future woe, but acceptance that to be guarded against it deprives us of our present joy; what young children and the naïve share in common. I suspect most of us have felt this in tiny increments, when we have walked in an old forest, by a seashore, or climbed a great mountain. You cannot experience anything with awe unless there is some remnant of innocence about you. To live each day with that same sense of uncultivated optimism, that’s the thing I wish for.


In the event you think it impossible to live as I describe, let me suggest someone most readers will know of, a representative of that rare breed I referenced earlier. Most of us knew him as Mr. Rogers—his real name and his somewhat larger than life persona that millions of children grew to know and love over decades. It was my great good fortune to meet and briefly work with Fred Rogers and to see him as he traveled around the country, and to be clear, there was no daylight between Fred Rogers on or off screen.


There are many stories I could tell you about him; his uncanny ability to recall names and faces of those met but once, years in the past, as we travelled from city to city taping a program about parenting. I might mention his incredible sense of empathy, and the touching moment he brought a world-renowned musician to tears remembering summer afternoons when practice prevented joining others in play, or the extraordinary sensitivity required of him as he interviewed the parents of a terminally ill child. All of these moments and more were entirely spontaneous—entirely unselfconscious, and thoroughly, genuinely naïve in the very best sense of the word.


I’ll just tell you one story that I hold dear. I was visiting my friend and former pastor in Sewickly, PA, just outside Pittsburgh. It was Thanksgiving and I was staying at the Manse. While showering Thursday morning there was a knock on the door. I thought it odd as the sound of the shower surely should have indicated my occupation. I stuck my head outside the shower curtain and inquired as to who was at the door and my hostess replied that there was someone to see me. You might imagine this caused me some consternation, but I gamely toweled dry and opened the door of the bathroom to find Fred Rogers standing there in his trench coat, the weather as usual that time of year somewhat bleak. Without a further greeting he announced, “Hi Doug, I was in the neighborhood.” In fact, he was not in the neighborhood, he had gone about 20 miles out his way from home to the airport and would travel another twenty back to begin his trip on Thanksgiving day to greet an acquaintance.


Why this story? Because it epitomizes for me the spirit of a man who had such generosity of spirit that he would inconvenience himself on a day most of us would be preoccupied with our own families and concerns to pay a spontaneous visit and disarm the occasion with wit. Some people may have thought Fred was just a ‘nice’ man, or even a simple man. He was neither, he was naïve in all the most important ways. That was why Fred dedicated his life to producing a TV program for children that helped them preserve their innocence, their wide-eyed wonder for as long as possible; to help them become the very best versions of themselves. That is why I saw grown men and women tear up when they met him at airports, at hotels, and restaurants wherever we traveled. They recognized what I did. Here was the genuine article, the real thing. A man who lived each day as if it were the first, who loved without reservation, and was never too busy or guarded to stop and greet old friends and new. I wish we could all be this man.

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