Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past few weeks you’ve probably been inundated with news about the current implosion of the U.S. (and now world) economy. Inundated may be too mild a term. “Completely overwhelmed” may be more accurate. After 9/11, Americans were repeatedly warned to “be afraid, very afraid” and encouraged to go out and shop as an antidote to our fear and as an expression of patriotism. Given the tone and content of many of the conversations that I’ve had with people over the past few weeks, despite efforts on the part of national “leaders” to reassure us not to worry and that “help is on the way” if we just trust that wise minds are taking care of business, it seems like there’s a greater inclination to “be afraid” than there is to shop.
This isn’t surprising since for most of us there seems to increasingly be less to spend and more to fear. Yet as President Franklin Roosevelt announced during the first depression, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” While I’ve heard that quote hundreds of times over the years, it has only been very recently that I’ve given any serious thought to what it actually means. To fully appreciate these words they must be provided with some context. It was March of 1933, seventy five years ago, and Roosevelt was delivering his first inaugural address to the country.
The nation was experiencing the worst financial crisis of its history. The depression had reached its depth. Credit wasn’t just tight, it was unavailable. There were massive foreclosures. The unemployment rate was through the roof. Banks all over the country had failed (and there was as yet no FDIC), international tensions were unprecedented with Fascism on the rise in Europe. It was truly one of our darkest hours as a nation. In his address, FDR’s intention was not simply to inspire and reassure Americans that we could and would get through these terrible times, but to put things in perspective and provide a plan that would effectively meet the challenges of the day. But first he had to cool the flames of fear that four years into the crisis were burning nearly out of control.
What he was referring to with his now-famous quote, was the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” When he spoke these words, Roosevelt was acknowledging that it isn’t the current situation that is our greatest threat, but rather our emotionally- driven reaction to it that undermines our ability to clearly assess the situation with clarity. He was acknowledging that fear that is intensified by inflammatory words and threats, whether they come from others or from our own mind, serves only to distort our perception of the reality in front of us and inhibits our ability to respond effectively. In so doing, Roosevelt was making a critical distinction between worry and concern, the former referring to feeling threatened and anxious and the latter having to do with being engaged and interested in something of importance and relevance to one’s life. In other words, concern is worry minus fear.
Of course it’s hard not to feel fearful when the ground beneath our feet (figuratively speaking) is quaking and threatening to collapse. Choosing not to feel afraid is often easier said than done. But Roosevelt did not admonish us not to fear. He merely reminded us of the dangers in believing everything you think or have been told. The appropriate response to fear is to examine it and question the assumptions that underlie it in order to respond to it in a way that addresses the concern that underlies it.
When we just react rather than respond to fear, we usually amplify it and get caught in a self- fulfilling, repeatedly reinforcing cycle which often ultimately leads to irrational thinking and panic. Roosevelt of course didn’t put an end to the depression of the thirties with his historic address, but he did interrupt what was rapidly becoming a national hysteria that could have had unimaginable consequences without his eloquence, wisdom, and confidence in the human character. There are many other brilliant insights that he offered in his address that have been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the “fear” quote, but it behooves us, particularly in some of these trying times to recall them.
Roosevelt went on to say that : “We face our common difficulties [that] concern, thank God, only material things ” (emphasis added). These last three words to me are the most powerful of his entire speech, for in them is contained the essential understanding that reminds us all that as difficult as things are, and as demanding as our personal, national and global challenges may be, we are dealing with material matters that only partially impact upon our overall quality of life. This is of course not to say that such concerns aren’t extremely serious and in need of being addressed and corrected as quickly and effectively as possible. It is simply to help us to put things in perspective and remember what it is in our lives that truly matters. What it is that has meaning and purpose for us.
What it is that truly impacts upon the quality of our heart and soul, and what it is that ultimately sustains and nurtures us and those around us. The word crisis in Chinese is composed of two characters meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Sometimes it takes a crisis to shake us out of the complacency of sleep-walking through a life driven by a script of material concerns in which we have lost sight of the purpose that underlies our need for work, money, and possessions. We can forget that these things are not ends in themselves, but rather means to greater ends. We may fail to ask ourselves the questions that can reveal the deeper needs and longings of the heart that can easily become neglected in our endless quest for “success”.
But true fulfillment cannot come from material achievement alone. Although the body does require food to sustain itself, the heart cannot be filled by material accomplishment. There is a wonderful saying that you can’t get enough of what you really don’t need. Sometimes it takes a crisis to tell the difference between what you really need and what you merely want. Although Roosevelt didn’t actually say that “This situation is a wonderful growth opportunity” (the New Age wouldn’t come into being for another forty years!), he did remind us to look beyond the immediacy of our anxieties to the deeper lessons that might be contained within this crisis. He simultaneously acknowledged the seriousness of the situation pointing to the underlying conditions that had contributed to it and offered a powerful and practical response to it.
Roosevelt went on to state that “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.” The grave danger that he alerted the nation to was not a failure of the banking system. That was merely a symptom. It was a failure of imagination, an absence of vision that underlay the systemic breakdowns that inevitably ensued. He further offered the extraordinary perspective that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort” and to “realize as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other”.
In speaking of the inextricably interwoven nature of all of our relationships, Roosevelt reminded us that one of the “gifts” of this crisis was that it helped us to remember that our basic nature involves interconnectedness, and that when our lives are an expression of this truth, all difficulties become more workable. In acknowledging our common needs, interests and concerns, we become more able to operate interdependently with each other, other groups, and even other nations rather than reinforcing the illusion of separateness and the experience of isolation that fuels our sense of powerlessness and fear. Roosevelt would deliver three more inaugural addresses until 1945 when he died in office. He has always been considered one of our three most respected and beloved Presidents, along with Lincoln and Washington.
Before his tenure was over, Roosevelt would lead America out of two of the greatest challenges of its history: the depression and World War II. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was in reminding Americans of what really mattered and inspiring them to find within their own hearts the strength, the spirit, the faith and the love that honors our deepest longings and our true purpose. When we are connected to the truth of our heart and to the hearts of others, not only do we see what truly matters and what is needed to fulfill the challenges that we face, but we see that we have within ourselves the ability to meet these challenges successfully. We also see that we are not alone, and that in working together in partnership with others we are capable of far more than we can in isolation or separateness. In ninety days we will be hearing the inaugural address of our next President. May we be blessed with a leader whose wisdom, judgment, compassion and ability to inspire matches that of FDR’s. But let’s not forget that even great leaders need the support of their constituents. America’s founders envisioned a true partnership between citizens and representative- leaders. Our current situation awakens us to the challenge of fulfilling their vision. Imagine the possibilities.