Why do I love Teddy Roosevelt? Wait. Let me rephrase the question. Why wouldn’t I love Teddy Roosevelt? His biography reads like a Greek epic. Stories of self-sacrifice and manhood with mythical proportions fill each page. Like a 19th-century Odysseus, he towered as an American hero: muscle, clenched teeth and grit.
As a volunteer sheriff, he once ventured five weeks in the harsh winter to run down a group of bandits. He stormed the hills of Cuba by horse on the front lines of an invasion. He hunted elephants, bears and tigers. A mountain lion once attacked his dog in Colorado, and he killed it with his son’s pocketknife. He had a tumor removed from his leg and, refusing anesthetics, he asked only for a glass of water.
He was once shot in front of a hotel on his way to a campaign speech. The bullet lodged between his ribs, and after finding no blood in his mouth, he assumed his lungs weren’t bleeding. He walked to the podium and exclaimed, “I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” The bullet stayed lodged in his chest for the rest of his life.
Teddy did all this while reading multiple books a day and becoming fluent in several languages.
All these stories have chiseled Teddy’s face into the hard stone of Mount Rushmore. History remembers and loves this Teddy. So do I. But there is something that I didn’t learn from Teddy. He never taught me how to grieve.
At age 26, Roosevelt sat on the night train between Albany and New York City where the darkness of the fog foreshadowed the tragedy that waited. His wife and mother were both gravely ill in New York. Only two days removed from giving birth to their first child, his 23-year-old wife, Alice, was dying of liver failure. Within 36 hours, Teddy lost both his wife and mother.
Although he faithfully kept a journal every day, this day’s entry was simply marked by an “X.” It reads, “The light has gone out of my life.” For the rest of his life, he refused to discuss his wife or mention her name again. She was not referenced in his journal or even remembered in his autobiography. His grief was so suppressed that he would not even speak to his daughter about the memory of her mother. He internalized the pain of her memory until his death.
He could handle well the pain of a bullet, but not a broken heart. For a man who despised cowardice, his inability or unwillingness to grapple with grief was his tragic flaw. He thought manly courage and vulnerability were mutually exclusive, that bravery never publicly acknowledges pain or invites others into sorrow.
But what I didn’t learn from Teddy, I learned from Jesus.
Jesus in the Garden
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonized over the impending pain of the cross. Mark describes Him as “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). Jesus told the disciples candidly, “My soul is very sorrowful.” Jesus Christ acknowledged grief to His disciples and us – His children.
In agony He sought the help of another, His perfect Father. As the perfectly heroic, perfectly courageous Son of God, He asked for help. Jesus readily acknowledged vulnerability. For Him, strength came by depending on His Father, publicly acknowledging pain and entrusting Himself to His Father’s care. In the presence of His closest friends, He was heard and cared for, as the Father sent angels to minister to Him.
Are you missing the courage of dependence? Do you, like Teddy, avoid acknowledging pain, hoping to forever internalize that sorrow which Jesus Himself acknowledged? Internalized sorrow over a lifetime will do far more damage than a bullet. Remember Jesus. The same Father He depended on offers Himself to you. Remember that He became weak so that we in Him could become strong.