“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” Theodore Roosevelt
A little-known secret of American History is that many of the great historical figures who made our nation great suffered from the same kind of doubt and indecision that we all do. More often than not, a biographical study of a great American leader is likely to reveal overcoming a great physical or psychological obstacle. We often think that these leaders were somehow gifted, and greatness was just a part of their makeup. Not true, these men were great because of the grit and tenacity that was developed through overcoming those obstacles.
Theodore Roosevelt, although born into a wealthy family, was plagued with ill health and almost died multiple times in childhood from debilitating bouts of asthma. When his father could find no medical cure for his son, he built a gymnasium for young Teddy and instructed him to work out. Young Teddy embarked upon what he later called “the strenuous life,” built-up his self-confidence and went from the proverbial 97 pound weakling to the president of the United States. Tough love, or great advice?
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”-George Patton
General George S. Patton is known as one of the great, can do, characters of American History. He was nicknamed, by his own troops, as “Old Blood and Guts.” His enthusiasm, optimism, and ability to lead was inspirational. As a child in the pre-learning disability American schools, he suffered from an inability to read or write. He was tutored from home, learned to read, and would have been known today as a military history geek. He eventually decided to emulate the heroic figures that he had studied since childhood, developed into an accomplished athlete, and was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Although slight in stature, he became an Olympic athlete, competing in the 1912 Olympic Games in the modern pentathlon. Patton was another example of someone who refused to accept the hand that life had given him.
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their mind to be.”-Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, had he been running for president in the 21st century, would be considered unelectable. Lincoln suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, a problem known in the 19th century as “melancholia.” If he was alive today he would be diagnosed with clinical depression, labeled as unstable by the media, and have virtually no chance of getting elected to any major political office. In 1838, Lincoln wrote what a close friend called a “suicide poem,” and Lincoln was watched round-the-clock by friends until he emerged from the depressive episode. In 1841 his engagement to future wife, Mary Todd, broke off and once again friends stepped in to keep him from self harm. Eventually, Lincoln and Mary Todd married, but not before she had a brief dalliance with his political nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas. If these events occurred today,TMZ and the entire Internet would have gone viral with these stories, and Lincoln probably would’ve ended up a sorry character on a reality TV show.
Lincoln worked extremely hard to overcome his dark side. He learned to compensate with humor, often self-deprecating. When he was on top of his game he worked hard, didn’t take himself too seriously, and made conscious efforts to take action to avoid slipping into the abyss that was his depression. Always a voracious reader, Lincoln was inspired by Stoic philosophies from the book, “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius. In other words, Honest Abe got honest with himself, took responsibility for his mental illness, and forged ahead. Think about how different our nation would be today if Old Abe decided to pull the covers over his head and stay in bed.
While certainly physical and mental setbacks will occur in the lives of many, these three great Americans can inspire all of us. It is likely that they became great because they conquered their problems. After overcoming death, ridicule, and mental illness, other obstacles in their lives seemed a little less daunting.
My first career was as a high school history teacher. It’s been a while since I gave a homework assignment. Your assignment is to consider the reactions of these three men to their setbacks, compare and contrast their problems with yours, and choose a new way to attack the obstacles in your own life.
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