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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 10-6-23 – The Sphinx President and Resiliency



Recently, I spent some time in DC. I had the opportunity to walk the national mall. I wondered off to the secluded FDR Memorial. It was incredibly moving. FDR had three nicknames. Of course, his initials FDR, and two others, one being “that man in the White House” by detractors who criticized his polices to get through the Great Depression. The third being the title of this post. He was called the Sphinx by political cartoonists who depicted FDR as the keeper of a riddle. In this case, the riddle involved whether Roosevelt would choose to run for a third term. Like the Sphinx, the President knew the riddle’s answer– but wouldn’t reveal it. We know now he was elected to office four times.


My sense was that this is a vastly underappreciated monument. The memorial consists of five outdoor rooms- one as a prologue and four for the unprecedented four terms of FDR. A 6th room, the Prologue Room was added in 2001, funded by the National Organization on Disability with private donations. It features a bronze sculpture of FDR sitting in a wheelchair. The sculpture is life sized and sits away from the wall for maximum accessibility. FDR was diagnosed with polio at the age of 39 and had limited use of his legs. The chair in the statue depicts one FDR designed himself from a kitchen chair and tricycle wheels. Although it was widely known that FDR had a handicap, he hid the extent of his paralysis from the public and was rarely seen or photographed in a wheelchair. His presidency is noted for sensitivity towards persons with disabilities.


The fountains and pools placed throughout the memorial represent the important role water played in FDR’s life. The water features and the stones also help set the tone during different times in his presidency. It was dedicated in 1997. There are 22 of his quotes, at eye level etched in stone within the memorial. Many of them resonated with me. The one that most deeply did so was in the 6th room next to the bronze sculpture of him in a wheelchair next to a bronze statue of his dog, Fala. Incidentally the only presidential pet so honored. It is this quote:


"They [who] seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers... call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order."


You can feel his deep concern for representative government. It is woven through so many of his efforts over the unprecedented period of time he served as our president. He was paralyzed from what was most likely Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) and led us through some of the darkest days of American history. Accounts from this era note he feared discrimination and hid it. He believed that public stigma about his physical capacity would cause people to perceive him as a weak leader. He was anything but a weak leader. CSPAN ranked him our third best president, behind Lincoln and Washington. His legacy reveals a far deeper truth, that dealing with a hardship or limitation can shape people to be better leaders.


Science backs up these truths. Several studies suggest it, this one exploring leadership in healthcare during the COVID pandemic noting that leaders who were able to navigate challenges effectively considered uncertainty as a principal feature of their work rather than viewing uncertainty as aberrant and something to avoid. There is a recent Gallop Poll that suggests that adversity positively shapes leaders. This article by Forbes notes we need resilient leaders for our times. In walking through the FDR Memorial, I thought about how it would be hard for FDR to get elected today. He would not have been able to hide his physical limitations. We still have deep bias. In our own era, would he have made it to the primaries? I think not. We have not progressed very far in this area.

Another feature of the memorial are these amazing bronze bas-relief panels by artist Robert Graham. They are comprised of a mixture of scenes from New Deal projects, impressions of hundreds of people representing the diversity of people impacted by the programs. Each project initials in letters and braille. The artist used braille to both encourage touch and to bring attention to the Roosevelt administration’s concern for people with disabilities. Resonating through it are the millions of Americans who struggled through this “worst hard time” and then went on to defend the world from tyranny, under FDR’s leadership. Powerful stuff. If I lived closer to DC, this memorial with the shade trees, running water and benches would be a favored spot.


On the trip to DC, resiliency was a theme. I had some personally meaningful conversations with leaders from across the nation, all who work tirelessly to help people heal from substance use conditions. I met old friends and made some new ones. As often happens to me, seemingly unrelated things sometimes come together. The memory of walking through the rooms and the experiences of the meeting and all the new ideas and opportunities are linked for me. People who overcome adversity are the heart and soul of our nation. I am grateful for how I am constantly reminded of this truth.


What are you grateful for today?


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