I think that the Great Depression and World War II are remarkable times in history. They’re remarkable because they prove that the very worst things can happen and yet, there’s still hope. That hope, however, is dependent upon our ability to see a world beyond our own—to see a world beyond ourselves.
The Arrogant Prince
Over one hundred years ago, in the state of New York, there lived an arrogant young man who dreamed of becoming the President of the United States. Truth be told, his chances of becoming the President were quite slim because nobody liked him. He was rich, spoiled, and deeply self-centered. He was a prince who didn’t care about anyone “below” him.
Be that as it may, this young man soon fell in love with someone who was his polar opposite—a woman who was kind, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about the welfare of others. Around 1904, she taught dance to children in New York City.
One night, the young man came to call on his girlfriend. She was not ready to leave because one of her students—a small girl—was very sick and needed to be taken home. The young man agreed to accompany his girlfriend to her student’s home.
He was not prepared for what he saw.
This small, sick girl lived in a tenement room in the slums of New York. The record describes her home as “not a pleasant place.” The young man looked around the room “in surprise and horror.”
When he and his girlfriend got back to the street, he took a deep breath and whispered: “My God! I didn’t know people lived like that!”
A World Beyond His Own
Seeing that room had a profound impact on that young man’s life. For the first time, he saw a world we seldom see—he saw a world beyond his own. From that point on, he began to change, little-by-little, for the better. He looked beyond his own little world of pain and labored to alleviate the pain and poverty of others. He and his wife devoted their lives to serving other people.
Their names were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States; he led the country through the Great Depression and the darkest days of World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most influential First Ladies of the United States; she was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
President Roosevelt wasn’t a perfect person—no one is. But he was a person who did his best to help others. Throughout his Presidency, he met with the poor and the downtrodden. He instituted programs and initiatives designed to lift people out of poverty. He even started an institute that helped people—particularly children—who were crippled by polio.
It should be noted that FDR, himself, was a victim of polio but he rarely mentioned it. In fact, most Americans, at that time, did not know that he used a wheelchair. He did not focus on that. His focus was on other people.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were lights in the wilderness of life. They offered hope in a time of great darkness. FDR once said: “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose . . . the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.”
A World Beyond Our Own
Every day, we are presented with opportunities to see a world beyond our own. As we interact with people, and learn of their suffering, we are offered the chance to enlarge our world and alleviate the “great depression” of another. And in so doing, we paradoxically bring greater light and life to ourselves.
G. K. Chesterton wrote: ““How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it . . . You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”