Eleanor Roosevelt on the Power of Personal Conviction and Our Individual Responsibility in Social Change
“In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.”
By Maria Popova
Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) knew that she was dying when she began writing Tomorrow Is Now (public library). She was seventy-eight and continued to work on this visionary, timeless manifesto even as she grew too weak to speak or hold a cup of tea. She described the book as “one woman’s attempt to analyze what problems there are to be met, one citizen’s approach to ways in which they may be met, and one human being’s bold affirmation that, with imagination, with courage, with faith in ourselves and our cause — the fundamental dignity of all mankind — they will be met.” It was published several months after Roosevelt’s death and remains an immensely elevating vision for our individual role in shaping our shared human future — an antidote to apathy more necessary than ever.
Roosevelt writes from the fortunate platform of a long and accomplished life, but also one that has survived a “lonely childhood in a caste-bound society with narrow traditions,” two major depressions, and two world wars:
Nothing of what has happened to me, or to anyone, has value unless it is a preparation for what lies ahead. We face the future fortified only with the lessons we have learned from the past. It is today that we must create the world of the future. Spinoza, I think, pointed out that we ourselves can make experience valuable when, by imagination and reason, we turn it into foresight. It is that foresight we must acquire. In a very real sense, tomorrow is now.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Anna Deavere Smith’s radiant wisdom on the discipline of not letting others define us — “Start now, every day,” she counseled, “becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.” — Roosevelt adds:
We do make our history [and] we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course.
She considers the most essential of these choices — that of refusing to succumb to fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar. A decade after Anaïs Nin poignantly observed that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Roosevelt writes:
It is essential that we cast out fear and face the unknown, as our ancestors faced the unknown, with imagination and integrity, with courage and a high heart.
Echoing Van Gogh’s assertion that “if one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid … to lapse into some mistakes,” she adds:
It is essential, above all, that in making history we do not forget to learn by history, to see our mistakes as well as our successes, our weaknesses as well as our strengths.
We need imagination and integrity, courage and a high heart. We need to fan the spark of conviction, which may again inspire the world as we did with our new idea of the dignity and the worth of free men. But first we must learn to cast out fear. People who “view with alarm” never build anything.
One thing I believe profoundly: We make our own history. The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves.
In a sentiment particularly chilling to read in an alarming election year, Roosevelt points to the most deadening manifestation of this fear of the unknown — the frightful clinging to a status quo built on antiquated beliefs:
The extreme right wing in American politics today appears to be trying to project itself into this obsolete background. It operates on the theory that American history has stood still, that the world has stood still, that it is possible to revert to the conditions of a long-dead past.
Noting that America was built by immigrants who constructed their lives from scratch because they hungered for change and created a new nation with “courage, self-confidence, and the willingness to face the unknown and shape it according to their dreams,” Roosevelt points to the preservation of these ideals, of that willingness, as the only hedge against the nation’s downfall:
In a sense, nearly all great civilizations that perished did so because they had crystallized, because they were incapable of adapting themselves to new conditions, new methods, new points of view. It is as though people would literally rather die than change.
We have to learn to think freshly about our new revolutionary world, to free our intelligence from the shackles of fear, and set it to work on the most challenging problem we have ever faced: the preservation of our civilization.
A century after Walt Whitman’s magnificent meditation on democracy, Roosevelt urges us to awaken to our individual role and responsibility in the amorphous abstraction we call civil society:
A democracy is made up of one man and one and one and — ad infinitum. But each man is responsible for what he does.
Government is people. The ultimate triumph of the democratic system depends on the individual use of democratic principles. We are not a faceless mass. As individuals we can influence our government at every level. But we must accept this responsibility. We must know what we think and speak out, even at the risk of unpopularity. In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and the integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are.
Lamenting the human tendency “to evade personal responsibility, to skirt the necessity of making a choice, to hesitate at expressing an opinion, to take comfort in being part of the herd,” Roosevelt makes an assertion all the timelier today:
Wherever we find this growing tendency toward apathy, we ought to fight it tooth and nail. There could be no more destructive quality for America and its way of life.
Half a millennium after Galileo’s abiding case for the cultivation of critical thinking, Roosevelt argues that our educational institutions and character-building paradigms have failed to foster a culture of such crucial critical thinking — which is, after all, the most potent source of moral agency for the individual and of advancement for society:
We have not sufficiently developed in our people the habit of analyzing a situation, of analyzing people’s words, of coming to their own decisions. I think it would be of great value if in our universities we gave the techniques of analyzing a subject from every point of view. It would be sound preparation for coping with world questions, which we must eventually solve. We cannot blindly leave them to government. We are the government.
We have to take a new look at ourselves, at what our kind of government requires of us, at what our community needs from us; and then prepare to take a stand. In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.
With a concerned eye to the culture of conformity, Roosevelt adds:
It is becoming increasingly difficult for the individual to remember that he is himself a unique human being, and that unless he keeps the sharp edges of his personality and the hard core of his integrity intact he will have lost not only all that makes him valuable to himself but all that makes him of value to anyone or anything else.
Look around you at the major improvements in your life, in your world. Each of them grew out of an individual conviction and an individual ability to act upon that conviction.
Today, as we confront a culture increasingly strung out on immediacy and predicated on the seductive promise of instant gratification, Roosevelt’s caveat to this conquest of conviction rings all the more uncomfortably yet necessarily true:
Now and then I see individuals who are stirred out of their apathy, who see something which needs to be done, something in which they believe wholeheartedly. They set to work with a will. Then something goes wrong. That is when they need to be reminded, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Obviously, it takes great determination to go on working, year after disappointed and frustrating year, for some reform that seems important to you. As time passes you feel that nothing has been accomplished. But, if you give up, you are abandoning your own principles. It is deeply important that you develop the quality of stamina; without it you are beaten; with it, you may wring victory out of countless defeats, after years of what seemed to be hopeless effort.
Roosevelt herself was only eighteen when she began fighting for the rights of working women, at the time excluded from male-only unions. She withstood enormous resistance and countless failures on the path to success. It is from this platform of hard-earned experience that she writes:
The individual is the spur to public action. We are the government. The basic power still lies in the hands of the citizens. But we must use it. That means that in every small unit of government, each individual citizen must feel his individual responsibility to do the best with his citizenship that he possibly can achieve.
This, she cautions, isn’t merely a matter of voting on election day but rather of stepping up to every dysfunctional part of our communities and pushing actively toward the frontiers of change we believe to be necessary. Choosing not to engage in fixing society’s brokenness, she argues, is as harmful as doing the breaking ourselves:
What you don’t do can be a destructive force. The citizen who sees things going wrong in his community and shrugs his shoulders or complains to his neighbors and stops there is partly guilty of the condition. It is in his hands to rectify it.
It is my conviction that there is almost no area of life which we cannot transform according to our own desires if we want something badly enough, if we have faith in it, and if we work for it with all our hearts. It is not too much to say that every bad situation is a result of apathy, of lack of planning, of individuals who think, “After all, it’s not my business.”
Self-government requires self-examination, action by the individual, standards, values, and the strength to live up to them.
Complement the indispensable and immensely timely Tomorrow Is Now with Roosevelt on happiness, conformity, and integrity, then revisit Nobel laureate Elias Canetti on crowds and power and Kierkegaard on the individual vs. the crowd and the power of the minority.
Published May 2, 2016