Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are

Today, as I was reading a book by one of my former teachers [1], I came across an interesting quote from former President Theodore Roosevelt. This particular quote is interesting for several reasons. For one, Theodore Roosevelt was known for being a partiuclarly strong-willed person, who through sheer force of determination managed to overcome a somewhat sickly condition and be seen as a man’s man reknowned for hunting and military exploits (in the Spanish-American War), as well as peacemaking (through his negotation of the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese War, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize [2]), despite the fact that he was a rather high-voiced fellow who probably was teased a lot for not being partiuclarly manly when he was young.

One would expect such a man, who was famous for being one of the “young men in a hurry” along with Henry Cabot Lodge that expected great achievements within the political world of their day, to have been a man who looked down on others because of his ability to overcome his own congenital weaknesses through an immense self-discipline and ironclad will, but rather we find in his strong hostility to entrenchred powers and in his quotes and in his life a strong defense of the interests of the common man with a simultaneous and immense ambition to be part of the governing class of people. Given his wandering life as a young man, it seems particularly ironic, then, that he would famously quote: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” As a quote that reminds me of another thoughtful tripartite quotation [3], I would like to briefly discuss the three parts of this quote today.

When Theodore Roosevelt tells the listener to do what one can, there is a subtle balance here. On the one hand, there is a clear (and very American, it should be noted) emphasis on action. For a variety of reasons (not least the pragmatic bend of our most popular philosophies), Americans have a cultural reputation for being less prone to reflect and more prone to act. On the other hand, there is a recognition that we cannot be expected to do what we cannot do, or to achieve the impossible. There are limits to our capabilities, and even though this particular quote is a call to action, it is also a call to reflect upon what is possible and to act within those boundaries, even if one is doing everything that is possible within the constraints of life.

The second part of the quote has a similar sense of balance to the first, in that it advocates the full use of one’s resource but does not hold someone responsible for resources they do not possess. From the life of Roosevelt, we can recognize that he definitely had a lot of resources to draw on, including a supportive and prosperous family and a strong body of people willing and able to support him in his various causes. Nevertheless, he was also a person who knew his constraints as well. At one particularly low point in his life, after the death of his first wife and his mother on the same day, he placed his newborn daughter in the care of his sister while he went away to grieve. He was therefore compassionate about the limits on the resources, not only of money but also of one’s internal reserves of energy, and did not wish to encourage others to live beyond their means in any fashion.

Third, Roosevelt advises his audience to act where they are. There is a strong temptation in the face of difficulties and struggles to seek an escape from one’s trials, but Roosevelt here is urging the listener to remain where they are. There are at least a few reasons why he would do this. For one, there is a great gain in character to be made by developing the capacity to endure and perservere through the struggles and trials of life. For another, there is a great deal of accomplishment and confidence that results from success, confidence that can be used to build on small successes for larger later success. Given the fact that TR seems to be envisioning his quotation as an advice for success on the part of his audience, it would make sense that he would want to build up and encourage others to stand firm and increase their own potential rather than to run and take their troubles with them to show up in another situation on another day, rather than be put on the path to resolution.

In light of the preceding comments, it is perhaps a bit surprising that the closest quotations to that of Theodore Roosevelt spring from the world of faith. There is, for example, the famous quotation from Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms: “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen [4].” There is also, even more suggestively, the strong statement by Paul in Ephesians 6:13 which probably inspired Martin Luther’s own similar comment: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you will be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” These quotations combined are a strong appeal to moral courage [5], not mere mulish stubbornness, but with a shared goal of strengthening the will of others to stand up firmly against evil where we are.

While browsing statistics articles, as I am prone to do from time to time, I came across an interesting discussion about this particular subject as it related to baseball rosters. There is some debate about the best way to build a Major League Baseball roster. Is it best to have a lot of okay players at low cost or a few expensive superstars and a lot of “scrubs” [6]. The conclusion, after some rigorous statistics testing involving fWar and other numerical analysis, was that a win is a win, and regardless of whether you get your wins a little bit at a time for low cost (which is the only option for a team with financial limitations to be competitive) or whether you buy a lot of wins in a few superstars and then fill in the rest of the roster spaces with people slightly more athletic than I am, a win is a win, and the best way to succeed in building a team roster is to do the best with what you have, which ought to be obvious, but is not always so.

Let us therefore reflect on the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt here in urging us to know ourselves and our capabilities and to then use those capabilities in purposeful and courageous activity designed to better matters wherever we happen to be placed. Such opportunities may at times be glamorous, and at other times it may simply be a quiet but grim slog through the difficulties of life in ways that may not be noticed by others at all. Yet it is not the outward glory that we seek here and now, but rather the internal growth that shows a strongly rooted moral development that will make its way known eventually but that may not always be observed by other people for whom slow and gradual change escapes their notice. Nevertheless, we do not act only for the here and now, but for all time. So therefore let us act wisely, doing what we can, with what we have, where we are.





[5] See, for example:

[6] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Bible, Christianity, History, Sports and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are

  1. Pingback: Wise Enough To Know I’m Not Wise | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: How To Pick Up A Stripper And Other Acts Of Kindness | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: A Grand Experiment | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Young Man In A Hurry | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: Book Review: I Can With I AM | Edge Induced Cohesion

  6. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt | Edge Induced Cohesion

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