My whole life I have felt drawn to different public figures. I’d consider myself well-educated and informed, but I still vote based on feeling. I don’t care how much I like a candidate’s tax reform policy if they give me a gut feeling that I shouldn’t vote for them. It’s very pedestrian and not scholarly of me, but it’s who I am and I kind of like it.
So when I was a wee Jen and I was learning about the American presidents, I felt myself drawn to Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it’s the beard (I love beards!) maybe it was the big nose (I’ve been known to like a sizeable schnoz) or maybe it was something else. I always just rationalized my love for the sixteenth president as a love for the man who fought against slavery. Seems noble enough, right?
Well then I learned about Lincoln’s “melancholy” as he and his loved ones called it. Similar to Churchill’s Black Dog, no one deemed Lincoln’s steady state of sadness as “clinical depression,” because that diagnosis didn’t even exist. Lincoln once described himself as the “most miserable man living,” and said if he was to divide his sadness among everyone else living, no one would have room for a smile upon their face. This dude was seriously upset about life.
As a counselor, I’m drawn to these people. I used to be one of these people! When I hear of people like Abraham being like this I become endeared to them. I instantly feel a kindred spirit because I understand two major qualities Lincoln possessed:
1. A profound and incomprehensible sadness.
2. An intense desire to be a better person and to make something of myself.
Lincoln had these qualities. In his early 20s, Lincoln attempted suicide. After this suicide attempt, he had about six manageable years of melancholy. In certain ways, Lincoln was justified to feel so terrible. Almost his entire family had perished from disease or misfortune and the only family member surviving, his father Tom Lincoln, was cold and distant. On top of that, Lincoln’s true love died from typhoid fever. Major life buzzkill.
Lincoln then had a nervous breakdown. In a letter to his bestie which he dated as the “fatal first of January,” he described the “deplorable state of his mind,” mainly an unsteady political career, a challenging law practice, an impending loveless marriage, and his best friend moving away. He had a bunch of stuff to be sad about. His grief-stricken childhood and an adulthood that just did not seem to go his way probably made Lincoln feel like he couldn’t catch a break. I would certainly wonder what the point of living was if I endured so much suffering.
But do you know what I really love about Lincoln? Lincoln thought about stuff. It’s common amongst depressed people. It’s pretty much the defining trait of depression. Your mind is just too busy thinking about dark and twisty things. Lincoln was also self-educated. He put himself through school and basically learned anything he was interested in. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Lincoln decided to live. He said to himself, “Well, I don’t want to give up. Life is crappy and I’m super depressed, but there are happy people in the world and they must deal with the sad things in ways that might be helpful to me.”
So Lincoln taught himself how to be happy. He became a scholar in learning how to manage his deep and pervasive depression. He made a choice. He decided that the good in life was worth living for and decided to teach himself how to maximize the good. Lincoln gave his life meaning.
Good thing he did, too. Lincoln did a lot for this country that many who are not assassinated in an untimely manner manage to do. It was Lincoln’s depth of character and his desire to understand himself which was ultimately his salvation. I am heartened to know that one of our greatest presidents struggled with so much inner turmoil. That is the kind of character value I want to see our future presidents posses. Forget about (most) of their politics, I need to know if they have ever looked inside themselves and decided to improve upon what they saw? We could all afford to do that.
“Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.” –Abraham Lincoln
P.S. Now that I know so much more, I’m buying this book. You should, too. We could talk about it!
What do you think about Lincoln’s depression? Can you relate?