Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eleanor for today...

“Do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was a veritable fount of inspiring quotes in a human form, wasn’t she? You cannot go to one of those motivational quote websites – I never do this as I am eternally inner-motivated, I assure you – without finding her words of wisdom sprinkled throughout, pretty flowers in a park with a bench set up for you alone, scattered about to ignite you from the inside-out.

Can you imagine if Eleanor were alive today, in an era that would really gobble her up and slap an Oprah Book Club gold medallion of approval on the cover of her best-selling self-help book within moments of its publication? Today's Eleanor Roosevelt would have a phalanx of dedicated employees to answer her messages, post interviews of her on YouTube, send out her monthly inspirational newsletter, and ardent supporters would send it spiraling out in ever-widening revolutions until there was a cult of Eleanor spanning the globe. Books, CDs, DVDs, speaking tours: a mega-media empire would be the most natural trajectory for Ms. Roosevelt if she came of age today. She might have started her career path, perhaps, at the Chopra Center or maybe she would have taken a Course In Miracles workshop. Eleanor was lonely, she was lost, she had an unhealthy attachment to food, she had toxic relationships, her spirit was malnourished, she was seeking something elusive but necessary. The Chopra Center or the Course in Miracles or even Scientology gave her a temporary boost but she was still tormented. When she finally hit bottom - standing in front of the fridge with empty cartons strewn about, when her fiance dumped her, when she lost her house - she had a moment of incredible clarity as if the sky were splitting right in front of her, like she'd been set on fire (but in a good way). She would have dropped the spoon, wiped away her tears, just taped another packing box shut and in that crystallized, perfect instant, it suddenly would have all made sense: every bed decision, every self-destructive act, every hurtful, bruising thought, and the shackles would have finally fallen off her, loose around her feet. She would have found herself filled with a profound, uncomplicated joy for the first time she could remember and she would have written for six months straight, her hand writing furiously as if guided by a divine source. This could be the Eleanor Roosevelt of today, in our time of gurus and moguls, spiritual teachers and entrepreneurial healers. Oprah would sit with her on the stage and they would chat about enriching the collective human soul for seven-to-nine minute sessions between commercials for floor wax, and Eleanor would sit with her hands folded primly but somehow just perfectly comfortably. Her most recent book would sell twenty thousand more copies before the hour was over and the previous wouldn't do so bad either.


Would Eleanor Roosevelt be just too plain, simple and beige for today? Was she very much a creature of her time, possessing the perfect qualities that post-Depression, pre-liberated women found inspiring around World War II but not polished and sharp and imbued with enough spirituality for today's seekers? No matter, I find her words to be uplifting because of the don't-accept-excuses attitude that insists that we are the shapers of our destiny: no blaming of parents or past lives or even the patriarchy. Eleanor said in so many words, in so many ways, in the perfect voice of the day: Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get busy creating the life you can be proud of, and she said this with endless understanding but totally intolerant of excuses. Gender, class and racial inequalities didn't factor in because people didn't talk about or give too much consideration to those things so well in her day. This is a shortcoming that is not her fault. Still, I think we can find Eleanor Roosevelt's simple but deeply inspiring words and use them as catalysts for cleaving away the stuff that gunks up our motors. It seems that I often ricochet between two internal voices: one that is harsh, condemning and judgmental ("Get to work, lazy, and try not to write anything trite this time!") and the other than is indulgent and coddling ("I'll take another break to check my messages... A little chocolate will give me a boost..."). One of my goals for this year is to replace both those voices with Eleanor Roosevelt's instead: measured, balanced and full of wisdom.

“It is better to light one small candle than curse the darkness.”

This is so essential for activists to take to heart. It is one thing to be a critic - and it is vital in this deeply mad world to engage our critical faculties - but it is more useful (and much more challenging) to offer legitimate, helpful alternatives to the madness. I have so internalized this message, it is almost impossible for me to be critical without also thinking about solutions to what I criticize and, more than that, acting as a example of positive change. It is easy to point fingers, to accuse, to attack, but if you don't offer a guidance for a way out in a way that is effective and compelling, you are just another angry person futilely pointing fingers.

"Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product."

Very sage words, indeed, especially today when people pursue happiness like it's some prize at a carnival: if I just get past enough obstacles, I'll get it! Happiness is the state we reach by living authentic, rich and rewarding lives, it is not an end in and of itself. We move toward happiness when we make choices that support it and nurture it through the living of our lives. For me, happiness comes when my spirit, creativity and sense of purpose are in alignment and when that judgmental voice is absent. It is clear to me that happiness is also most certainly something you need to actively choose to bring into your life with all your other choices.

"Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one."

I have to admit that this has been an easy one for me most of my life. I tried to conform at a certain point - meaning my hair had to look a certain way, I had to dress like the others, I had to like particular bands - but I was so miserable. It was impossible despite my most sincere wish to finally just fit in. Thank goodness I gave up trying. What fills you with joy? What makes your heart want to dance out of your chest? What are the gifts that you are uniquely suited to give the world? The beauty and richness of life is made up of our individual, unique, personal contributions. That Linda is an amazing vegan chef and Gillian fills the world with her offbeat wonderfulness and Jane builds a community wherever she goes and Mary brings passion to everything: this is the stuff of life. I'm pretty sure that a world without individuality would be a very depressing place. As a corollary, another wise person and fierce individual, Mahatma Gandhi, said, "In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place." Who cares what everyone else is doing? Act in accordance with your conscience. The way others act shouldn't factor in at all.

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

For me, and I imagine I'm not alone here, this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt is the most meaningful and important. How often have I abandoned myself just because I was feeling harshly judged by another? How many times have I used this as an excuse for beating myself up - she thinks I suck, he thinks I'm stupid, so-and-so doesn't approve of me - and then giving up? It is easy to feel confident when you've had no opposition, but another thing when another disapproves. Are you going to buy what they're selling? If so, then you just orchestrated your own unhappiness and failure. I have always deeply admired those who don't look for affirmations from others, who merrily skate on their way regardless as to whether those around them think they're brilliant or mediocre. A healthy self-esteem can mean everything in this harsh world. Imagine if Gandhi had internalized it when he was told, in so many words, that sovereignty was a pipe-dream, and, further, that he was a fool. "Look at you. You're a little Indian man. You're nothing. What can you do? Nothing." Or if Eleanor has listened when she was told, "You're plain. You're a woman. Shut up and sit down." They didn't internalize those words. They knew that they were better than that.

So I give thanks for Eleanor Roosevelt and her wisdom today. Last, take a moment to look at that first quote back up at the top of this entry. Thank you, Eleanor, for giving me the mantra I need for the year.


  1. A lovely woman writing a tribute to another lovely woman...what could be finer?

  2. Aw, thank you, Dea. Just looking at her picture makes me smile. And so do you, lovely woman.

  3. Very nicely said, Marla. In your first scenario, she would perhaps have come out as lesbian on Oprah, then gotten her very own talk show.

  4. I love the first quote--that's my sister's mantra, too! What a lovely, thoughtful piece. Thanks!

  5. They are great quotes. Not being an American I am not very knowledgeable about eleanor Roosevelt but I would like to read a biography. Do you recommend any good Eleanor reading?

    Happiness is already inside us-we can't find it; we make our own.

  6. Thanks, Stantoro. I have often thought that if Eleanor would be alive today, she would be an out lesbian.

    Thanks VB and BF. BF, I have not read an Eleanor Roosevelt biography yet but this has spurred me to want to read one soon. I confess that I'm not much of a biography person but there's got to be a good one out there. :)


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