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Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’

24 DECEMBER, 2012

A Christmas Story of Hope from Eleanor Roosevelt, 1940

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“The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people’s beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.”

As a lover of children’s books, especially vintage ones, I was delighted to find out that beginning in the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt — beloved First Lady, dedicated humanitarian, writer of controversial love letters, timeless philosopher — penned a series of books aimed at young readers, discussing various social and political issues, from voting to international relations. In 1940, in the midst of a grim holiday season marred by the realities of WWII and the Nazi occupation of Europe, she penned Christmas: A Story (UK; public library) — the tale of a little Dutch girl named Martha, who struggles to find meaning, love, and peace in a world of destruction and uncertainty after her father, Jon, is killed in the war.

The original edition, now long out of print, features illustrations by German graphic designer and artist Fritz Kredel, who was later commissioned to create a woodcut of the Presidential Seal for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

The light in the window must be the dream which holds us all until we ultimately win back to the things for which Jon died and for which Marta and her mother were living.

In the introduction, Roosevelt articulates something all the more prescient in the wake of recent tragedies:

The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people’s beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.

Though the Christ Child plays a central role in Christmas: A Story as a source of hope and solace for little Martha, the religious elements are more of an allegory for Roosevelt’s philosophical message: That we don’t need to seek permission to believe in goodness, even in the face of evil, and that, as Stanley Kubrick famously put it nearly three decades later, “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

Some images via We Too Were Children

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16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity

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“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Eleanor Roosevelt endures as one of the most memorable thinkers and doers in modern history — a relentless champion of working women and underprivileged youth, the longest-serving American First Lady, and the author of some beautiful, if controversial, love letters. When she was 76, Roosevelt penned You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (public library) — an elegantly written, relentlessly insightful compendium of her philosophy on the meaningful life. In the sixth chapter, “Learning to be Useful,” Roosevelt considers the secret of happiness — that elusive, shape-shifting aspiration of which such great hearts and minds as Henry David Thoreau, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan Watts, Martin Seligman, C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and a range of TED speakers have had their own theories.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Public domain image courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr Commons

Roosevelt writes:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

[…]

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.

I have always liked Don Quixote’s comment, ‘Until death it is all life.’

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’

But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.

Eleanor Roosevelt votes in Hyde Park, New York, November 3, 1936

Public domain image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library via Flickr Commons

In the following chapter, titled “The Right to Be an Individual,” Roosevelt considers the moral responsibility of living what you believe and fully inhabiting your inner life as the foundation of integrity and, more than that, of what it means to be human:

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. 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.

Indeed, this sentiment is at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

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11 OCTOBER, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Controversial Love Letters to Lorena Hickok

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“You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) endures not only as the longest-serving American First Lady (1933-1945), but also as one of history’s most politically impactful, a fierce champion of working women and underprivileged youth.

But her personal life has been the subject of lasting controversy.

In the summer of 1928, Roosevelt met journalist Lorena Hickok, whom she would come to refer to as Hick. The thirty-year relationship that ensued has remained the subject of much speculation, from the evening of FDR’s inauguration, when the First Lady was seen wearing a sapphire ring Hickok had given her, to the opening up of her private correspondence archives in 1998. Though many of the most explicit letters had been burned, the 300 published in Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok (public library) — at once less unequivocal than history’s most revealing woman-to-woman love letters and more suggestive than those of great female platonic friendships — strongly indicate the relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok had been one of great romantic intensity.

On March 5, 1933, the first evening of FDR’s inauguration, Roosevelt wrote Hick:

Hick my dearest–

I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.

Then, the following day:

Hick, darling

Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

And the night after:

Hick darling

All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think “she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”

And in yet another letter:

I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.

Hick herself responded with equal intensity. In a letter from December 1933, she wrote:

I’ve been trying to bring back your face — to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.

Granted, human dynamics are complex and ambiguous enough even for those directly involved, making it hard to assume anything with absolute certainty from the sidelines of an epistolary relationship long after the correspondents’ deaths. But wherever on the spectrum of the platonic and romantic the letters in Empty Without You may fall, they offer a beautiful record of a tender, steadfast, deeply loving relationship between two women who meant the world to one another, even if the world never quite condoned or understood their profound connection.

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