To help students explore how Eleanor Roosevelt, over time, channeled childhood fears into confident action.
Three years into the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. His first inaugural address included this memorable line:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . .
Fear. What do we do with this emotion? Is fear it helpful? Harmful? When, why, and how?
Ask students to start by jotting down some thoughts about the following questions: What is the role of fear? Can fear be a helpful emotion? When? Can it be harmful? How? Do you agree with FDR that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?
After students share their ideas in small groups, open up the discussion, offering this insight:
Aristotle proposed that true courage is found between two extremes, both related to fear. Too much fear can lead to cowardice -- or running away from making a good choice. Too little fear can lead a person to recklessness — or running headlong into a situation in a way that puts yourself or others at risk needlessly.
Courage is not denial of fear, which is probably there for a good reason, but rather choosing the right response anyway. When we are brave, we acknowledge our fear while also keeping in mind the bigger picture. It means you assess the situation and decide that there is something more vital than this emotion at stake. As Harvard psychologist Dr. Susan David puts it, “Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is fear walking.”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a lot of experience with looking fear in the face — perhaps even more than her husband, FDR. Orphaned at an early age, Eleanor often talked about a childhood marked by trauma and anxiety.
Give students a handout with the following excerpt from her 1960 memoir, You Learn by Living. In it she wrote:
Looking back it strikes me that my childhood and my early youth were one long battle against fear. I was an exceptionally timid child, afraid of the dark, afraid of mice, afraid of practically everything. Painfully, step by step, I learned to stare down each of my fears, conquer it, attain the hard-earned courage to go on to the next. Only then was I really free. Of all the knowledge that we acquire in life this is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. With each victory, no matter how great the cost or how agonizing at the time, there comes increased confidence and strength to help meet the next fear...
I can remember vividly an occasion when I was living in my grandmother’s house on Thirty-seventh street in New York City. One of my aunts was ill and asked for some ice, which was kept in the icebox out of doors in the backyard. I was so frightened that I shook. But I could not refuse to go. If I did that, she would never again ask me to help her and I could not bear not to be asked. I had to go down alone from the third floor in the dark, creeping through the big house, which was so hostile and unfamiliar at night, in which unknown terrors seemed to lurk. Down to the basement, shutting a door behind me that cut me off from the house and safety. Out in the blackness of the back yard.
I suffered agonies of fear that night. But I learned that I could face the dark, and it never again held such horror for me…
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Ask students to underline two sentences that strike them as important or insightful in this passage. Share and discuss, paragraph by paragraph. What does her story about a childhood fear teach us about courage and resilience?
Share with students: If you study Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography, you begin to see a clear pattern: each time she began to feel consumed by fear or inadequacy, she reached out to others in need in extraordinary ways. She gained strength from personal struggles and actively looked for ways to ease the burdens of others. Her accomplishments include:
Volunteering to care with wounded soldiers during WWI
Serving in the leadership of the League of Women Voters
Raising five children (a sixth child died in infancy) and serving as First Lady of the United States
Touring the country during the Great Depression, meeting with struggling citizens, and serving as the “eyes and ears” of FDR (who used a wheelchair and for whom travel was difficult)
Writing a daily newspaper column, where she advocated for child welfare, housing reform, women’s rights, and civil rights
Resigning her Membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow African-American singer Marian Anderson sing in their building — and arranging for her to instead sing at the Lincoln Memorial
Serving as a delegate to the United Nations, where she chaired the Commission on Human Rights
Ask students: Now that you know more about her accomplishments, look back at her story about being scared to get the ice for her aunt. What if she had let fear consistently hold her back? What might have been the ripple effect in her life?
In your notes, write about a time you “really stopped to look fear in the face.” Was Eleanor Roosevelt right? Did you “gain strength, courage, and/or confidence” when you did this?