Dear Eleanor, I’m Still Learning

Dear Eleanor,

I recently reread YOU LEARN BY LIVING and was amazed by its wealth of inspirational quotes and its relevance for todays political environment.

You wrote it back in the late 1950’s near the end of your life and dedicated it to your grandchildren. I read it for the first time, in the early 1970’s when I was a shy, adolescent idealist.  Back then, I was mesmerized by your candor in describing your less than idyllic childhood and what you saw as your “own deficiencies”.

Eleanor Roosevelt's You Learn By LivingI was heartened to realize that overcoming those deficiencies and life’s adversities lead you to achieve all that you did for the American people as First Lady, for all nations and peoples as a delegate to the U.N., and for women, children and minorities as a civil rights activist.

It seems impossible to imagine that our country and the American people could have survive the Great Depression without Franklin leading the way as our President and you, his eyes and ears to the American people, forging your own way as our First Lady. And twelve years in the White House was only the beginning of your legacy.

In my first reading of YOU LEARN BY LIVING, you unleashed a budding non-conformist when you said:

"The standard by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions ... When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being."

You emboldened a shy idealist with:

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop and look fear in the face."

You tapped into the rebelliousness of youth and motivated me to develop “an unquenchable spirit of adventure”:

"There is no experience from which you can't learn something. When you stop learning you stop living in any vital and meaningful sense. And the purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience. ...You can do that only if you have curiosity, an unquenchable spirit of adventure..."

You tempered that rebellion:

"What counts isn't what you read; it is what you sift through your own mind."
"Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive."

Going back to reread YOU LEARN BY LIVING more than 30 years later, I wondered if my memories had set the bar too high.  If my idealized impressions had become too rosy over time.

I needn’t have worried. The youthful me had taken your words to heart, but the middle-aged me was moved to reaffirm that commitment to live and learn with “a graciousness of the heart” and your “guide posts” in sight.

You reminded me that:

"Each time you learn something new you must readjust the whole framework of your knowledge... one is forced to make inner and outer readjustments all one's life. The process never ends."

But you also had a few surprises for me in this reading of YOU LEARN BY LIVING. Things I overlooked in my apolitical youth. How you talked strongly about the importance of political involvement for all.  Even while acknowledging the role and toll politics took in your own marriage:

"I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome."

To be a spur is a difficult and thankless role in any relationship, let alone a marriage. That it was for a people and nation that you loved deeply, did not make it any less painful I’m sure. Your amazingly personal sacrifice seems all the more extraordinary now, when so few Americans even bother to vote.  As you acknowledge:

"One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. ... we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility."
"...farther than mere responsibility for oneself... each of us, ultimately, is responsible in large part for the welfare of his community, for the kind of government he has, for the world he lives in."

Maybe that is what we are missing today in our “we the people” marriage to our government. We, the people, stopped taking responsibility for the “we”.  We stopped spurring our government and ourselves to do better. We became lazy and neglectful of our government. And we allowed our government to become lazy and neglectful of us in return. We allowed politics to become a spectator sport — with us sitting on the sidelines.

"There is corruption in politics because there are human beings in politics. There is corruption in business and in law and in medicine. But when there is corruption it is because we allow it to grow and flourish."

So no surprise that there is not much left to “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in our government these days.  As you warned:

"If the seeds of growth are made sterile, if men become passive followers instead of developing qualities of leadership - and courage - we may find someday that our way of life has been superseded."
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

And no surprise that we are now a nation experiencing a Great Recession, too big to fail banks, too rigged to fail Congress, and a for-profit mass media.  We are fighting two wars, while our own government takes away our civil liberties, and the Supreme Court gives equal rights to corporations.

I imagine if you were here today you would be telling “we the people” to dust ourselves off and go to work actively spurring and participating in our government.  And you would be cheering on those that already are.

"For the chief duty of the citizen is to make his government the best possible medium for the peaceful and prosperous conduct of life."

And we would take courage from your confidence:

"With each effort to shoulder a burden comes strength, and with strength comes confidence. With confidence enough, a nation is invincible."

So thank you Eleanor, for writing YOU LEARN BY LIVING.  It’s been more than 50 years since its first publication and it’s still teaching me.  And I’m sure I’m not alone.

For more Eleanor Roosevelt inspirational life quotes:
The Wisdom of Anna
Other related posts:
On FDR’s New Deal: The American People Sound Off
Savvy Bankers? Free-Markets? Populist President?




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