"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

03 September 2005

“Lincoln’s Great Depression”

One of our modern traits is the desire for immediate and complete alleviation of all suffering. I am not opposed, as a general principle, to the alleviation of suffering. But one must remember that this is a fallen world, and suffering is the refining of the One who created us. Maybe we seek too quickly sometimes for health and ease.

The article "Lincoln's Great Depression," by Joshua Wolf Shenk (not available online), appears in the October 2005 issue of The Atlantic. I cannot too strongly urge those of you who have struggled with depression to find the issue and read it.

Based on primary source research, Shenk draws a compelling picture of the deep, even suicidal, depression that dogged Lincoln all his adult life. He divides Lincoln’s struggle into three phases – initial fear, during which he most strongly contemplated suicide, sometimes making friends so concerned as to remove from his reach all razors, knives, and such implements. The second phase he calls engagement – when Lincoln, having determined that he would live, sought and began to live for a considered purpose: “He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and ‘so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.’” (This was not hubris – Lincoln was surely one of the most humble men in our political history – but a sense of purpose.)

Once he seems to have engaged his depression – primarily by accepting it and coping with it through work, story- and joke-telling, and reading and writing poetry – he then transcended (not escaped) its grip on his life through embracing and using its benefits to the good of the country he was elected to lead. Of these benefits, Shenk discusses at length clarity, creativity, and humility: Lincoln could see issues more clearly than those less inclined to a pessimistic view of them, he created his best speeches and made his best decisions when he was most melancholy, and he recognized that he was a man under authority (the people’s, God’s) simply doing his job to the best of his ability.

All this is fascinating reading. One thing that most interested me was the way Shenk describes depression and, most unmodern-like, questions the wisdom of always trying to get rid of the suffering it causes its victims, or assuming that the victim of depression is so “sick” that he is de facto unable to function in any positive way. His final lines read:

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation [once he was sick but he got over it and achieved great things] but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”

Some of the ways Shenk describes depression:

“True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden – but also, in Lord Byron’s phrase, with a ‘fearful gift.’ The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.”

“Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. [. . .] Lincoln [. . .] once wrote of ‘that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.’” Of the result of this, one stanza of a Lincoln poem reads “To ease me of this power to think, / That through my bosom waves, / I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink / And wallow in the waves.”

“[H]appiness,” Shenk writes, “is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies.” He quotes a researcher: “[W]hen they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people’s perceptions and judgments are often less biased.”

(This quality, Shenk believes, gave Lincoln his ability to see the horror of slavery, but also the wisdom of the founders in not trying to abolish it at once but put into play the restrictions that would allow it to die out naturally. Each view, of course, made him most unpopular with large numbers of people, but he did not shrink from the truth he was convinced he had seen. He gained this particular insight directly from his own depression: “continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing it could never be perfectly attained.”)

“With Lincoln sadness did not just coexist with strength – these qualities ran together. Just as death supports new life in a healthy ecosystem, Lincoln’s self-negation fueled his peculiar confidence.”

As president, he believed “that he had been charged with ‘so vast, and so sacred a trust’ that ‘he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.’” He had found his duty, in other words, and did not allow himself to shrink from it however difficult depression might make the work. And the work, because adamantly pursued in the face of suffering, held tremendous creativity, wisdom, insight – and in turn alleviated or held at bay, at times at least, the despair of his personal suffering.

I have read nothing that rings so true about depression not written by an artist suffering from it. It gave me hope once again, especially in the midst of another dark time. I too have been given sacred trusts, from which I must not shrink.


Cindy said...

Beth--This is exactly where I live, daily throughout much of the year, and exactly why I hold out against taking medication myself, although I have no word of condemnation or blame for those who choose that route, at all.

Beth, I have no way of getting my hands on a copy of this. Would it be at all possible for me to beg or bribe you to make a copy of the article and snail mail it?

Thank you very much. You are, as usual, right on target (at least by my own experiences).

alaiyo said...

I will send it this week!

Yes, I resonated so with it, too, I was shaking as I read it. The remark that he had a sacred trust is what really hit me -- I have, like you, wanted to avoid medication for various reasons, but this gave the real reason a name. That sacred trust that one must live for and must not fear the way God has allowed for one to reach it.

Not much sense, but I've got that summer cold everyone was writing about a while back and the brain is less than perfectly functional . . . well, less than *normally* functional; we all know how "perfect" my brain has ever been! :)



Megan said...

I need to give this to all my friends who share the gift and burden of melancholy and tendency toward depression. I would also love a copy of this to put on my mirror when the darkness and cold of the Asheville winter begins... another beam of hope! Thank you so very much.

Cindy said...

Here's hoping that summer cold is on its way OUT of your system. Thank you very much for sending the article. I'm reading a new (!) book of articles, both personal and critical, about Jane Kenyon and her work right now, and there are little things about her that connect (at least in my own private little world) with what you've written here.

More pieces of the puzzle. . .

Megan: "the gift and burden of melancholy"-- I'm not sure what it was about this phrasing, but it nearly knocked the breath out of me.

alaiyo said...

LuCindy -- 'tis in the mail! And I'm feeling better, but it could be the drugs . . . :)

Megan, thanks for stopping by! You are welcome.



Joshua Wolf Shenk said...

I wanted to thank Inscapes & its readers for a lovely description of my work. You really captured one of the core elements of this story as I see it, and I'm grateful. Today is the official pub date of the book from which that Atlantic Monthly article was drawn. If you're interested in buying it, the best price for the next five weeks is at http://www.bn.com/shenk.



alaiyo said...

Wow -- thanks for coming by, Mr. Shenk! The essay gave me hope that I've not been a fool to live as I have, and I'm most grateful for it. I will put the book on my next list!