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Anything Can Have Meaning

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Today would be Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday. She was born on this day in 1884, just barely making it in under the wire of what it would mean to be a Victorian, with a touch of that American Stoicism. This attitude was best encapsulated in two quotes, either one of which could have just as easily come from Epictetus or Seneca (and given her aptitude for politics and power, she is probably closer to Seneca than Epictetus.)

The first quote comes from a conversation early in her political career, when a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “passionate interest” in a piece of social legislation. They had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. “Yes,” she did support the cause, she said. “But I hardly think the word ‘passionate’ applies to me.” Eleanor would have agreed with the Stoics that the passionswere to be avoided—that delight and lust and excitement were the enemies of rational support and justice.

The second comes from You Learn by Living in which she captures the true essence of Stoicism. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ …You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Her husband’s affairs and his capricious ego. The early death of her beloved father. Being sent away to boarding school. The long wars her country fought in. A life of often thankless public service. These were all ordeals that she endured, and met with indefatigable cheerfulness and optimism. Each one changed her for the better, each time she got stronger. It was like Viktor Frankl’s line, “Anything can have meaning if it changes you for the better.”

Today Eleanor Roosevelt would be 133. No human lives that long, but her legacy has survived and both these quotes should inspire and motivate us.

P.S. This email was originally sent