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Mr. Rogers Knew: How “The Little Prince” Helps Us See Beyond COVID-19

April 29, 2020


In the spring of my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, I went to a Presbyterian church for a Good Friday prayer service. All of a sudden, walking straight at me was Fred Rogers—that is, Mister Rogers—who sat down next to me, introduced himself, and asked me what I was studying. I told him I was a French major, and he took out his bulletin and wrote, “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” It is perhaps the most famous line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 classic, The Little Prince. It translates, “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” I needed that wisdom then, and I need it now.

The Little Prince has always been one of my favorite books, and not only because of my extraordinary encounter with Mister Rogers, nor because my surname is a slight variation of the title. It is full of timeless wisdom. Here are five encouraging lessons The Little Prince can teach us during the COVID-19 pandemic. (All citations are from the 2000 Harcourt edition, translated from the French by Richard Howard.)

It teaches us to appreciate being at home.

We’re all getting stir crazy; but if we think we’re isolated right now, the Little Prince has us beaten by a long shot. He is the only inhabitant of Asteroid B-612, and yet he takes seriously the stewardship of this tiny part of creation. He rakes out his volcanoes, and he plucks up the baobab shoots so that they don’t take over his little world. Most important of all, he gives meticulous care to his flower, a single rose for whom he “couldn’t contain his admiration.” Because his asteroid is so tiny, the Little Prince can watch beautiful twilights and sunsets any time he wants. “One day I saw the sun set forty-four times!” he declares. How many of us, during this period of confinement in smaller worlds, are using our time to maintain and improve what we have—our homes, our gardens, our families—and perhaps find new things there to fall in love with, despite the monotony?

It teaches us to go out and evangelize.

God willing, our current circumstances will not last much longer. Our quarantine has given many of us not just a longing to get back to normal but to see things we have never seen. Despite the strength of the Little Prince’s attachments to B-612, he catches a ride with some migrating birds and hops from one planet to the next, eventually reaching Earth. Everywhere he goes, he notices things; and he speaks to those with ears to hear. On Earth he offers some valuable insight to “a salesclerk who sold pills invented to quench thirst.” The Little Prince is puzzled that the main reason for the pills is to save time—“fifty-three minutes a week”—otherwise spent drinking. The Little Prince says innocently, “If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I’d walk very slowly toward a water fountain.” Most notably, he helps the Aviator, the book’s narrator, find a path through the desert to life-saving water. When we can get out again, let’s work on leading others to “the spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

“It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

It teaches us to love and be loved.

The great love story in The Little Prince is between the title character and his flower. He indulges all of her whims and is willing to overlook her little manipulations and untruths; but just before he leaves, he realizes he has not appreciated her properly. Real love is different, and better. The Little Prince laments, “You must look at them and smell them. Mine perfumed my planet, but I didn’t know how to enjoy that.” How many of us have regrets about how we’ve handled our most precious relationships? The Little Prince shows us opportunities for growth and change in our own hearts. But it can be painful. The Little Prince faces an existential crisis when he encounters an entire garden full of roses on Earth. He bursts into tears, saying, “I thought I was rich because I had just one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose.” But he comes to his senses, saying to the large collection of flowers: “One couldn’t die for you. . . . She’s my rose.” Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

It teaches us where true meaning is found.

This is the lesson Mister Rogers wanted to teach me at that prayer service twenty years ago. The fox asks the Little Prince to tame him, showing him how courage and patience are required to see people and things for what they really are. The fox declares, “There must be rites.” There is a formation process required to “prepare the heart” in getting to “the secret,” which turns out not to be some Gnostic wisdom, but the plain truth we find throughout the Bible and that which we experience in the sacraments of the Church. Here’s longer version of the quote Mister Rogers scribbled out for me: “It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Or as Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8).

It teaches us to embrace Christian truth.

The Little Prince is an obvious Christ-like figure. And even though the analogy isn’t perfect (neither is Aslan in the Narnia books), The Little Prince may be best read through the lens of the Incarnation, ministry, miracles, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. The Little Prince has no known human parentage, and he comes to Earth from the heavens. He asks a lot of penetrating questions that shine a light on others’ misplaced priorities. He provides drink for the thirsty. He does not appear to sin, and he avoids the temptation of a snake. Finally, it is through what appears to be death that he is able to rise and return to where he came from, continuing as a source of hope. The Little Prince evokes deep love—even a kind of discipleship—in the Aviator, whose final words evoke Jesus’ emphasis on the child-like wonder required for the kingdom of God: “No grown-up will ever understand how such a thing could be so important.”

Mister Rogers used to sing, “Let’s think of something to do while we’re waiting, while we’re waiting ’til something’s through.” Why not pick up The Little Prince?

Photo Courtesy of Matt & Megan