We are just a few hundred miles out from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, our last stop before we begin the trek home, and we’re listening to Theodore Rex, the second volume of Edmund Morris’s classic three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. We’re listening to the book as a prelude to that stop, largely because it recounts the formation and implementation of Roosevelt’s conservation policies. But ever since our visit to Mount Rushmore, we have carried with us an admiration for Roosevelt’s character and ideals, which has caused us now, as we listen to the book and the miles roll by, to realize that our country has changed in a way that would have stifled the very virtues that Roosevelt embodied.
Roosevelt was a weak and sickly child, debilitated by asthma. He was small and skinny, which made him the object of frequent bullying. But it was how he reacted to these afflictions that gave him the character he displayed as president. He overcame his infirmities by adopting a strenuous lifestyle. In response to the bullies, he hired a boxing tutor who taught him to defend himself. He exercised regularly and pushed himself to go on long hikes. His entire youth was spent in dedicating himself to the development of strength, courage, and perseverance.
The contrast between Roosevelt’s approach to his afflictions and the norms of modern America is patent. It wasn’t that many years ago, certainly within my lifetime, that one gained stature and influence not by having afflictions, but by overcoming them, not by demanding concessions to one’s frailties, but by refusing them. Just a few decades ago, encouragement to “man up” was not something to be derided, it was an exhortation, in the manner of a young Teddy Roosevelt, to develop the best aspects of masculinity in the face of fear, deficiency, or weakness.
It’s sad that our country now celebrates and rewards vulnerability, timidity, frailty, and weakness. But, as Theodore Roosevelt National Park comes closer and closer, we are grateful that it was not always so.