Friday, March 13, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and Depression

I'm reading this wonderful book by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner entitled Overcoming Life's Disappointments. Since mine is a secular blog, and I know many of us worship different faiths, I don't feel comfortable discussing the religious lessons I'm learning.

However, there is a quote about Joshua Wolf Shenk's book, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, which might have a universal application. "[Shenk] offers a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a man weighed down with despair and depression, not only during the years of the Civil War but throughout his life.

"But the depression did not keep him from living a productive life. On the contrary, it forged a strength of soul, that in the words of the book's subtitle, 'fueled his greatness.' Shenk writes, 'With Lincoln, we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered.'

"His mental condition taught him to 'look troubling reality straight in the eye' rather than with unwarranted optimism. Lincoln became a great man and a great president, perhaps the greatest president ever, because his road to the White House was a hard road, not a smooth one.

"...Lincoln used the discouragements of his life not to permanently block his way but to help him uncover who he really was. And we, who can aspire to be like Lincoln, can be like him in refusing to let the discouragements of our lives permanently deter us from the fulfilling life that may await us."

As I bid you a happy and healthy weekend, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this quote. What can we learn from our depressions? How does it strengthen us? What "skills and capacities" does it give us?


Gianna said...

beautiful!! this understanding is part of the core of what drives me...


Wellness Writer said...

Actually, I thought of you when I posted it!


Catatonic Kid said...

Inspiring post, Susan :)

It's bigger than the whole 'whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger' mentality 'eh. Lincoln was a great man because he saw not just his own limitations but his sufferings in others too and found hope in all of it.

Sometimes our knowledge of intense sorrow can help us look at the world with understanding, and take its hand even when it hurts. Fighting for our lives, knowing ourselves that intensely again and again, can light a fire that doesn't go out.

Perhaps, having been to greater depths our full reach is extended when we look up again...?

Wellness Writer said...

Dear CK,
Great analysis. You're sure right about how tiresome it is to hear "whatever doesn't kill us strengthens us."

In the midst of my depression, when that psychiatrist said, "Depression is a gift," I wanted to strangle him. The comment provided neither insight nor solace.

However, the idea of learning from Lincoln appeals to me, and I'm reserving the book from my library.


Catatonic Kid said...

*smacks forehead* Right because what was that about Greeks and gifts again?

Please, let me strangle him for you. Platitudes are just so much fun for everybody...

And we're the ones get put in little boxes with labels on 'em again why exactly? ;)

Wellness Writer said...

Dear CK,
For me, I think it was a combination of what he said (yes, I do hate platitudes), and the timing.

Even when I significantly learn from a depression (and it's always after I feel better), I still wouldn't put it in the "gift" category. I guess the reason is because it sounds so cavalier, and would seem to diminish the extraordinary psychic pain that accompanies the lesson.

Wow! I guess I could go on and on about this one. You probably could too, huh?


John D said...

Susan - Some time ago I read the Schenk book and even did a post about it. It's one of the most remarkable books I've read, not only for its portrait of Lincoln but also for its review of the state of medicine at the time with controversies that parallel closely those in our day. What was so incredible about Lincoln is that he stared down depression by an act of deepest will - often in public when he seemed not just depressed but wrapped in a difficult inner process - clearly he was in the midst of taking depression apart, at great cost. He knew what such intense suffering was but it also seemed to harden his determination to do whatever he had to do to accomplish the great things he set his mind on.

It's especially inspiring to see this through Kushner's eyes.

Thank you! -- John

Wellness Writer said...

Dear John,
Thanks for letting me know. I'll look at your post tomorrow, and make sure I get the book in the next few days.

When I think of having to deal with depression without any medication at all, and being such a public person who accomplished such great things--I'm awestruck.

And while Kushner just mentions Schenk's book once, Kushner's book, in which Moses is the central character, is having an enormous impact on me. It's truly changing the way I view disappointment, failure, and the Bible.


Wellness Writer said...

I can't find your post about Shenk's book. Maybe you can link it to my post or let me know when you wrote it. Thanks,

Wendalyn Love said...

I loved the quote and I love reading stuff about Abraham Lincoln. "Love Eternal" (I think that is what it is called) is one of my favourites.
Anyways, I agree with many things said in the quote. The thing I have found that has become of my life is that since I can't do everything I want (due to my limitations), I prioritize and end up doing ONLY the things I really want to do and the things which are really important to me. Isn't that a good way to live anyways? And it took an illness for me to get here....

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Wendalyn,
I've come to that same realization myself with the same outcome. And, you're right. It's a much better way to live.


Carrie said...

Like Stephen Cope (of Kripalu), I think that we have gifts. Most often these gifts are honed thru tribulation or tragedy.

The clarity that follows a bout of depression is a blessing that allows for an opportunity to share with others and learn about the self in a way others are unable.

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Carrie,
For me this is easier said than done. And I sure need to keep reminding myself of this!