What FDR and JFK Taught Me About Fear

UPDATED: September 30, 2015
PUBLISHED: February 16, 2015

Presidents Day isn’t a big deal anymore, but I’m old enough to remember when it was. As a schoolchild, we’d get both George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays as days off. And then somewhere along the line, the two holidays were merged for someone’s convenience—and the new holiday didn’t seem to mean as much. Until last year, that is.

I have Multiple Sclerosis, and when it comes to dealing with it, everything becomes pretty clear after all the dust settles, at least in my experience. But I was feeling really low on energy during the Christmas season, back in 2012. I had a lot of trouble concentrating at work—nothing major or dramatic but, in retrospect, a pretty steady downhill slide. Then, right around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I started sliding fast and all at once. Over just a few days, I lost most of my fine motor skills in my hands. I had an incredibly strange sensation in my chest and torso, too—it felt like someone had thrown a lasso around my rib cage, making it feel tighter each day like some sort of ratchet wrench.

Up until that point, of living with MS for more than 10 years, everything seemed to be in check. I had had some minor setbacks and bouts with numbness and fatigue. This was different. The pressure of the banding across my chest got worse each day with every breathe I took. I was scared. But one night it finally dawned on me…. What good is fear?

As a professor of Modern United States History, I have a pretty fair opinion of our nation’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the time he made his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, the economy in our country had hit rock bottom. Unemployment stood at 25 percent. Public confidence in capitalism had eroded. So on this cold day, the new president revived something that had been waning in the American psyche for the last three years—hope. FDR told his nation, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

And he knew about which he spoke. In the 1920s, Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio. He was paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair-bound for life, and he once confided that his greatest fear was being trapped in a burning building and being consumed by flames. Part of this man’s ability to relate to average Americans who were shaken and down and out rested on his empathy, his ability to get why they were so afraid. Roosevelt’s mantra from his inaugural address helped keep my fear in check, too.

After some emergency steroid infusions, I had to get out of the fast lane for a while and see how much my body would heal. This part of the journey was still scary, but I was on a mission. I had to work from home for three months. I didn’t feel coordinated enough to drive. My typing skills were non-existent for several weeks. I couldn’t button a dress shirt. So what did I do? I tackled each physical challenge one by one. I did this little tapping exercise with my fingers, touching my thumb to the tip of each finger. This helped me check each day what sort of range of motion existed in my fingers and the degree of sensation in my fingertips. I called this finger therapy. I practiced buttoning shirts in front of the bathroom mirror. I called that button therapy. You get the idea.

President Roosevelt’s words of hope had placed me on the right track, but the words of another chief executive, the boy wonder, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, helped get me through the next toughest stage of rehab. On September 12, 1962, Kennedy went to Rice University to talk about the space program. Ever since the Soviet Union had successfully launched an earth orbiting satellite, Sputnik, Americans worried that they had fallen behind in the space race, maybe for good. Kennedy and his advisors thought otherwise. He laid out the ambitious goal that America would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. In a way that only Kennedy could say it, he added in his measured cadence, “We do it not because it is easy, but because it is difficult.”

Despite his supposed vigor, Kennedy spent most of his adult life trying to keep chronic lower back pain in check. He also was injected with regular doses of hydrocortisone to combat his affliction with Addison’s disease, a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands fail to produce necessary enzymes for the body to function. Said with empathy, Kennedy’s words on that hot afternoon under the Houston sun restored hope.

When it was hard to go back to work, I thought of Kennedy’s words. When it was hard to hold my wife’s hand or a plastic cup in my hand without crushing it, I silently repeated them. When it was hard to swing a golf club, they were there for me.

Presidents Day 2013 turned out to be special in ways that could have never been anticipated when that new year began—way more special than those off days from school as a young boy. The pain and fear that two presidents had known earlier in their lives led to moments of clarity, understanding and empathy as they tackled serious problems confronting our nation. It enabled each of them to see hope when others were giving up.

Hope is the lesson in all of this—the hope of making it through a tough day, the hope of a better tomorrow. With renewed hope and determination, I am back: back behind the wheel, back at work, back lacing up my running shoes, back swinging a golf club, back buttoning my dress shirts…

… and back typing this essay. It feels good to be back.

Don’t dodge your fears—channel them instead. Find out how to use fear as motivation.

Bob Miller, Ph.D., teaches history at University of Cincinnati, Clermont College and has authored three books. He has lived with Multiple Sclerosis symptoms since 1999 and was officially diagnosed with the chronic condition in 2003—but he aims to live life to the fullest every day, whether that's through time spent with his family, in the classroom, running, golfing or writing for fun.