This past week was The Roosevelt Week- the 14 hour documentary on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably three people who did more to change the American way of life than just about anybody in the 20th Century. I sat through the whole series shaking my head in awe, mouth open in amazement or just plain dumbstruck. First, of course, by the remarkable film making of Ken Burns and the writing of Geoffrey Ward. They have developed such a remarkable style over these past 30+ years that their work engages, teaches, and entertains you. There were pictures and films that have probably not seen the light of day in decades.
Just as amazing was also the three "stars" of the show and their story. As a fan of American history I devoured all these newly revealed facts and stories as well as all the old familiar ones since now they had a new twist- we could watch them and put them into historical perspective. Several things stood out as part of the secret of their incredible success in what they did.
In one of the segments, Geoff Ward described the impact that FDR had on people. Ward talked about the fact that a number of people said that Franklin Roosevelt would stand to greet them when they entered the Oval Office. In reality, he never rose to greet anyone. Ever. As we all know, FDR was paralyzed by polio at age 39 and never stood on his own again. It was impossible for him to stand and greet anyone at any time. Yet, Ward explained, it was the force of his personality that people imagined him able to do more than he could. His presence was so real and so large.
The same was said of Teddy Roosevelt. One person described being in the room with TR and then feeling like he had to "wring the personality from his clothes" since it was so overwhelming. Eleanor, considering her role as a woman in a very male-dominated world, may have been even more powerful than the two of them. She won over generals in the south Pacific war zone by her presence and dedication when she went on an exploratory visit.
Some of their personality strength came from the families they grew up in. But that is one of those correlation or causation questions. Other members of their families were far less able to overcome the demons they were afflicted by. Alcoholism ran through the whole Roosevelt clan. (Eleanor was TR's niece and FDR was a 5th cousin to TR.) Illness and depression plagued them, including the three of them as well. They all had complicated relationships with parents as well as their own children. They were, in spite of their much-larger-than-life personalities, very human.
Somehow we also want to make something of the fact that all three, as well as many other people of big egos, ambitions and personalities, had to overcome some significant issue. TR was plagued by asthma as a child, yet became this incredible outdoorsman, pushing everyone around him to greater acts of strength and (sometimes foolish) bravery. His first wife and mother both died on the same day. FDR was stricken by polio and all his future seemed lost. I never thought about how devastating polio was. My generation was the first to get the polio vaccines that have conquered what was a dreadful disease. Yet FDR campaigned as tirelessly as any candidate ever has- or will. Eleanor was looking for unconditional live and acceptance lost from her own parents. FDR was unfaithful to her- and she knew some of it. Yet she chaired the newly formed United Nations first committee that wrote the International Declaration of Human Rights- and became the only individual ever to receive a standing ovation from the UN General Assembly when it passed.
Yes, it may very well be that the ability to overcome such incredible obstacles and adversity played a big part on who they became and what they were able to accomplish. Yet others faced with similar or even lesser problems fail to thrive. What is it then that allows some to excel under such circumstances and others to fail? Why does one person who loses love and support crawl into their own oblivion and fail to thrive while another member of the family becomes president? The great Viktor Frankl wrote following World War II that a sense of meaning and purpose of one's life is what helped many prisoners of Nazi concentration camps survive. His Man's Search for Meaning is still one of the most important books in the field over 60 years later. He has a number of quotes that resonante:
But these, too, beg the question, why do some people, or how do some people, manage to maintain that sense of meaning or hope, purpose or love when everything around seems to be taking all that away? Frankl, and others, will here point to a sense of spirituality or the spiritual. Yet there are many who don't have that sense or are unable to experience whatever it may be.
- When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
- Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
- A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how".
Perhaps, then, all that we can do as individuals, family members, colleagues, friends, therapists or fellow human beings, is hold up the possibilities for meaning and purpose. Perhaps what our tasks are is to be there when people face the adversity of their situation and be present with them, non-judgmentally, compassionately, and with a sense that there may be something greater than ourselves that will get us through.
Seems kind of weak and hopeless, I know. How can such stand up to things like the Holocaust, war, racism, debilitating illness? I don't know the answer to the "How?" but people like the Roosevelts and Frankl remind me that it isn't impossible.