Most evenings I have a hard time shutting off the devices and tearing myself away from work. The exception being when a Ken Burns documentary is aired during prime-time, as was the case this week with his newest work, “The Roosevelts.” As with most of his films, Burns opened up several different dimensions of this time in our culture and rather than simply painting one of America’s most prominent historical families as good or bad, he helped us to see their complexity.
Several themes played out through the series but I continually felt caught by one idea in particular that seemed to drive all three of the figured most closely examined (Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor) and that was fear. Teddy Roosevelt seemed driven to achieve out of a fear of “his demons” catching up with him. After facing trauma in her early childhood, Eleanor developed a fearless spirit that was only threatened by the possibility of losing her freedoms. And FDR not only dealt with the fear that accompanied a later-life onset of polio but also famously charged a nation in the pit of depression to recognize that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, even though there were very real and valid fears waking people up every day.
Eleanor in particular seemed to make a practice out of facing her fears and many people attribute this to her desire to grow in character. Perhaps that’s part of it but it also may be true that regularly facing and growing through what she most feared was her way of surviving such as life as she had experienced.
It makes me look at all her most frame-able, most bumper-sticker-worthy quotes a little differently knowing that to “do one thing a day that scares you” is not a way to out run the unexpected situations of life but a way to better meet them when they occur.