Warning! If you are looking for pessimism in these trying times, move on. That’s easy to find almost anywhere else. If you hope we uncover or expose a wide spread conspiracy to take lives, wreck the economy, gain political traction, etc., move on. If you are looking for another rant; a frustrated man who just needs to get something off his chest; a “I tried to be silent, but I can’t be silent any longer” type moment, you will be disappointed. Like many of you, I’m tired. I’m tired of missing appointments and losing scheduled events. I’m tired of being in the house. But I’m most tired of rants, tirades, conspiracy theories, and the endless ideas of people with too much time on their hands. I’m tired of seeing people become experts in medicine, viral diseases, politics and economics just because they’ve watched a few YouTube videos and saw a meme they are stunned no one knows about. So in the spirit of weariness, or perhaps in spite of it, I present to you a touch of optimism, with a twist of history and a biblical story from the Gospels. Maybe we solve nothing, but for a few moments, we have a chance to look back in order to look forward, and perhaps bring some peace, clarity, and hope to what we are experiencing.
On the evening of August 10, 1921 the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt complained of a severe fever at his vacation cabin in the Bay of Fundy, on Campobello Island, Canada. Roosevelt was 38 years old, an up and coming politician in the Democratic Party; he had run as the Vice Presidential candidate in the 1920 election. The future was bright for the man history knows as FDR. He would be governor of New York and a four-time President of the United States. He would guide America through the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II. But when he climbed into bed on that August night, the man with the bright future could have never guessed that he would never stand unassisted again.
Roosevelt’s symptoms had begun a few weeks before, when he attended a boy scout gathering in Bear Mountain, New York. Some unassuming young man, whose name history has never known, passed the poliovirus to FDR. One in 200 infected with the virus contract the paralytic disease. By the 11th of August, FDR was paralyzed from the waist down.
Perhaps FDR benefitted from a lack of television exposure, or the 24-hour news cycle. Instagram and cell phones would have certainly been the death of his political career, for the consensus then, and let’s be honest, even now, is that a handicap man has no business running a country. So FDR and his handlers did what they could to conceal the severity of his disease. He learned to walk short distances using iron braces on his hips and legs, and would often appear in public being held up by one of his sons or his staff aides.
The disease that should have ended him actually ended up defining him. FDR developed a resolve to try anything possible to overcome his ailment. He spent almost his entire family inheritance to purchase a rehabilitation center in Georgia and was the founder of a national foundation that led to the development of a polio vaccine. While those efforts affected untold millions of people in the future, it was the changes made within him during his lifetime that endeared FDR to history.
Renowned FDR biographer Richard Goldberg said that “with the disability he became more compassionate, made more widespread contacts, concentrated on his priorities, and learned to bide his time before making a crucial decision.” In other words, polio softened him, making a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth understand the pain and difficulties of those who have far less advantages. It forced him to be introspective, and a little slower than he may have been inclined to be.
Maybe polio made him the man he was destined to be, or maybe the man he needed to be. It isn’t easy to be humbled and humiliated, but it’s even harder to have compassion on those humbled and humiliated if you haven’t been there yourself. The suffering land of Depression America needed a leader with empathy, strength, and resolve. Maybe FDR would have had all of those things with two good legs, but odds aren’t in his favor. You rarely have natural compassion for those whose journey looks nothing like your own.
This essay isn’t an attempt to show how viruses are terrible and you can have one in your system and not know it. It’s not a comparison between the times of polio and the times of COVID-19. It’s not a political assessment of FDR, or even approval of all of his policies. It is an attempt to show that in the middle of adversity, great things can be both learned and accomplished if we let them. It is also an attempt to answer the question “Why?”
When Jesus and his disciples confronted the man born blind in John 9, the disciples were curious as to who had sinned. They play the role of the Satan, the accuser. It is the enemy who finds the negative and exploits it. Jesus looked for a way to help, and denied the accusation that sin was involved. Instead, he said the blindness was for the glory of God. Is he indicating that God was involved in making the man blind? Absolutely not, but rather, that the blindness should be seen as opportunity instead of outcome. The man born blind doesn’t heal him self, but he does participate. He traverses the city to wash at Siloam. He does what he can, after Jesus anoints his eyes. Blindness isn’t the end; it is simply the beginning.
Our situation today may be quite far removed from FDR’s polio or the blind man’s Siloam, but our attitude doesn’t have to be. We can hurl accusations like the disciples, or we can offer help like the Messiah. For those who feel their lives have been changed, or affected, or they are facing loss, chaos and confusion, they are experiencing their own, lesser version of polio or Siloam. In those moments we need to see our situation as exisiting for the glory of God; that he can shine through our adversity. What can we take from the moment that makes us better and improves our world?
We no more blame God for this virus than we do that nameless boy in New York in the summer of 1921 for shaking hands with a future President, and crippling his legs. Instead, we celebrate that we are more than conquerors, that we cannot be separated from his love, and that no matter how dark the night, or how crippling the day, we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose, no matter what that purpose may be.
Grace to you.