Last month I had the opportunity to travel to the US and Canada to tell people about Peace Heroes. I’ve known for a while that the project needs greater exposure, but I kept putting off the idea of traveling and speaking because it felt so daunting. Public speaking is not my gift, so setting myself up to intentionally do what I so greatly fear was alarming, at best. But it had to be done, so I mustered all the courage I had and set out on what felt like one of the crazier ventures of my life.
On the flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto I watched a documentary about American TV personality Mr. Rogers, whose television show for children, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” ran from 1968 to 2001 and shaped the childhood of thousands of Americans. Mr. Rogers aspired to make goodness attractive. For all the years that the show ran, the question of who is my neighbor always remained at the center of his creative endeavor. Week after week, whatever issues or themes Mr. Rogers explored on set, in the end it always came down to the same simple invitation: “Won’t you be my neighbor, whoever you are?” It mattered little how different (or similar) people were, everyone was invited into Mr. Rogers’ (make-believe) neighborhood – it was a space in which each and every child (and adult) could belong. This framework of belonging is what enabled Mr. Rogers to grapple with pressing issues of the day, whether it was segregation between blacks and whites in the US, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The safe space of welcome and acceptance that Mr. Rogers had so carefully constructed over the years became one of the few places (on television or otherwise) where difficult realities could be addressed with unusual honesty and openness, as well as kindness and love.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this documentary would be the framework for my month-long whirlwind trip to Seattle and Vancouver.
In the weeks that followed my arrival, I had the opportunity to expose the Peace Heroes project to a variety of audiences and individuals. Time and time again I watched a transformation take place on people’s faces as their mild interest turned to palpable excitement the more they heard about our work and our vision. Their response helped solidify my conviction that Peace Heroes is a needed and worthwhile project.
And yet, what touched me most was not the impact I had on people, but rather the impact they had on me. It was people’s simple gestures of kindness towards me that left the deepest imprint. I experienced such goodness on this trip – goodness in the shape of remarkable individuals who came alongside me and helped and supported me in so many amazing ways. It was as though each of them was answering Mr. Rogers’ invitation with a resounding “Yes!” I had arrived in their “neighborhood” as an outsider, and was taken in and welcomed as if I’d just set foot in Mr. Rogers’ make-believe world.
These are ordinary people living their ordinary lives who chose to step out of their routine for a moment in order to come alongside me. I was completely blown away by people’s generosity, their kindness, their dedication to this cause, and how they went out of their way on my behalf and on behalf of the Peace Heroes project. There were those who opened up their homes for others to come and hear me talk about the curriculum; those who used their networks to create connections, set up meetings, and organize talks for me in public places; those who invited me to join them at their table and share a meal (or two!) together with their family and friends; those who provided me not only with a bed to sleep in but a home to come back to after long and very busy days on the road; and those who simply offered me their friendship, taking hours out of their busy schedules to spend time with me, making me feel like my being there mattered.
For me, all those acts of kindness and generosity coalesced into one great torrent of goodness, turning my trip (which scared me to begin with) into something truly beautiful. Not because of what I had to give – but because of what people gave me. And goodness, I believe, is contagious. Because in taking me in and welcoming me to their neighborhood, the people in Seattle and Vancouver made me want to be a better neighbor myself – to be much more intentional about living out in practice the ethos and values so carefully embedded in the Peace Heroes curriculum.
Goodness generates goodness; generosity and kindness instinctively open up in us a desire to be generous and kind. It’s not so much that what goes around comes around as that what comes around also goes around. Can we, like Mr. Rogers, try to turn goodness into something attractive? Something so natural that we can’t think of any response other than kindness towards those who happen to be in our neighborhood – whether they are permanent residents or strangers passing through?
I love that my trip, in so many ways, was an embodiment of Peace Heroes. Not because of anything I did or said, but simply because every one of us has the capacity to be that hero to the people around us. It’s so simple. But what a difference it makes when we choose to reach out and welcome one another as the neighbors we truly are!