Courage of the Handicapped
Roosevelt at the famous Yalta conference in February 1945, two months
before his death. Churchill on the left, Stalin on the right.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times as President of the United States of America. Nobody did it before him and nobody will in the future as now American presidents can only be elected twice. FDR., as he was popularly known, had the most eventful presidency. He took office at one of America s darkest hours, at the time of the great economic depression, when millions were without jobs, and was elected to pull the country out of the morass. But the most challenging task he had to face was the leadership of the free world during World War 11. He faced these most daunting tasks with a great deal of success and became a hero to millions. His face as may be seen on many photographs was a study in energy, exuding radiant vitality. Yet he was a cripple.
Such was the image of his personality that, although his lameness was a well-known fact, many people, when they met him for the first time, felt shocked to see his actual physical handicap. Indeed, Roosevelt took many precautions to minimise external manifestations of his lameness. Above all, he did not indulge in self-pity and felt commiseration abhorrent. His serenity and relaxed manners became legendary. That a man with such handicaps could convince his compatriots to give him the supreme power at the time of a most difficult crisis is nothing short of a miracle. FDR's story says a lot about the capacity of the spirit to command the body: what could have been a permanent diminution for a lesser man became for Roosevelt — probably — the springboard of an inner transformation that made him a better man than he would have been otherwise.
Roosevelt's mother wanted him to accept his disability and retire from public life. His wife, Eleanor, on the other hand, felt that, despite his terrible handicap, he should fight to lead as normal as possible a life and, as he had already entered public life, to continue his political career. Fortunately for the world— and probably for Roosevelt himself — Eleanor prevailed on her mother-in-law. According to many close witnesses she managed to maintain a remarkable equanimity in front of the disaster that befell her family. She was a continuous source of strength for F.D.R. She never doubted his capacity to overcome. Such an attitude is the most precious support that people facing physical handicaps can get. The Roosevelts were an exceptional couple, no doubt, but the crucial role that the entourage can play to help overcoming a physical handicap can hardly be overestimated.
The struggle to surmount a serious handicap often reaps specific benefits. It is a well known fact that people develop compensating abilities. Blind people are known for their acute sense of hearing and smell. Some of them also develop a remarkable sensitivity of touch. People who have lost the use of some members [arms or legs] may become extremely clever in the use of other parts of their bodies. A case in point are artists learning to draw or paint with their mouths or their feet. Men who have lost the use of their legs often build a powerful upper body. This actually happened to Roosevelt who, according to Jack Dempsey, a famous heavyweight boxer, "had the most magnificent development of shoulder muscles he had ever seen." He made a few remarkable demonstrations of sheer robustness, like catching a hundred kilo plus shark after a two-hour fight, with no possible help of his paralyzed legs, an amazing feat of endurance and strength to any experienced fisher man. Besides these physical or more subtle enhancements of abilities, a lot is learned at the psychological level. A better intimate knowledge of oneself, a deeper sense of the relativity of things in life, a greater capacity of compassion and understanding are among the not so rare benefits derived from what at first may look as an unmitigated catastrophe.
Such ordeals are like test by fire. They force those persons who have to face them into an extreme situation where the best and the worst of their characters come to light. Often in a relatively short time, deep inner changes are provoked. There are naturally cases where the concerned persons become really victims and are unable to bear the crushing weight of the circumstances. But when they succeed in facing the
ordeal, it is not rare that such individuals are able then to appreciate that their handicap led them to a deeper discovery of themselves and the world, in effect, and to some extent a blessing in disguise.
In a book centred around the question of proper education of the physical being, we thought it was important to contemplate on the les sons that can be drawn from dealing with human physical disabilities. They tell about the strength of the spirit in man, they tell about the body's adaptability. The thriving and gusto for life which is not so rare in severely handicapped persons can also lead to a deeper perception of the basic delight of living. On the other hand, if one sees what kind of forceful struggle some people have to put up in order to regain or maintain a fraction of what is normally a simple natural ability, one may realize the utter importance to preserve well and further develop these natural abilities of the body.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of the most outstanding examples of victory over a severe debilitating condition, a victory that led him to admirable achievements. After seeing him at one political convention, Will Durant, then a journalist, described Roosevelt in the following terms:
"Here on the stage is Franklin Roosevelt, beyond comparison the finest man that has appeared at either convention.... A figure tall and proud even in suffering: a face of classic profile; pale with years of struggle against paralysis; a frame nervous and yet self-controlled with that tense, taut unity of spirit which lifts the complex soul above those whose calmness is only a stolidity; most obviously a gentleman and a scholar. A man softened and cleansed and illumined with pain..."
That was in 1928, seven years after he was first struck with poliomyelitis and became paralyzed. It was yet five years before he became president of the United States. Let us turn now to the gripping story of his illness and of his grim struggle to recover.