|President Abraham Lincoln, 1865, public domain/fair use claimed, full cite below in sources|
This past week marked the 206th birthday of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is clearly one of our better known Presidents. His image is on the penny and the five-dollar bill. His monument is one of the best known in Washington, D.C. and his "Gettysburg Address" is one of the most famous oratorical works in American history. His life was cut short when an actor turned assassin, John Wilkes Booth, gunned him down at the end of The Civil War.
Lincoln was not (ahem) universally loved as President. The South, of course, despised him enough to rebel. That's not a surprise. What did surprise me was the both the breath and depth of visceral anger there was to him in the North. Some thought him a tyrant, others a wild-eyed abolitionist. Meanwhile, the actual abolitionists viewed him with disdain, as nothing more than a spineless politician. I've got a number of links below to Lincoln's life and the circumstances that gave rise to the lack of universal affection for him.
Another surprise for me was that Lincoln likely suffered from mental illness. He referred to it as melancholy. There has been significant work on this subject and I have some links placed below if you'd like to learn more about this subject.
Lincoln had a rough life, as most of us know. Born poor, his mother died when he was young. Self-taught in the rough frontier that was Kentucky, he made his way to Illinois. Sure, he had some successes, but more failures. His election to President was a surprise to most. The anger of many soon followed.
Lincoln, despite all the odds against him, found a way to persevere. When at times it seemed all were either against him or certainly doubting him, he found the strength to believe in himself.
How did he do it?
Faith cannot be discounted. One of Lincoln's better known quotes (and one cited by our current President in his 2012 convention speech) is the following:
"I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go..."
Yet there was more to Lincoln's way ahead through the fog of his despair. I found this passage from Joshua Wolf Shenk's The Atlantic article to provide at least a partial answer. He writes, discussing how Lincoln found his own way to deal with his depression:
"Lincoln responded with both humility and determination. The humility came from a sense that whatever ship carried him on life's rough waters, he was not the captain but merely a subject of the divine force—call it fate or God or the "Almighty Architect" of existence. The determination came from a sense that however humble his station, Lincoln was no idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do. In his strange combination of profound deference to divine authority and a willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom"
I think another way to look at it was Lincoln's ability to be honest with himself. To recognize he had this condition and he'd admit to himself it was part of who he was. It is a shame that he did not have access to the modern treatments available today. Then again, if that was around, he might not have been able to have given us the speeches, the leadership, the plea for forgiveness and reconciliation after the blood spilling stopped. We are the beneficiaries of his suffering.
I'd be remiss as not to leave you with another of my favorite Lincoln quotes:
"Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves..."
I like to think that Lincoln, for all the faults that befall all mortals, found a way to be honest about his melancholy, at least to himself. In doing so, he found his own path to freedom. This is important. Consider how many other leaders in history were held back, perhaps paralyzed by their illness, unable to get help and get better. They denied themselves the freedom to get better, to suffer. How better a leader might they have been had they chose another way. How different history might have been.
From everything I've read about Lincoln, it appears that he had the courage to admit to himself he was not well. To him, he was "Honest Abe" indeed.
As for the rest of us, let's look to draw inspiration from Lincoln, to have the courage to be honest with ourselves about what's truly going on with ourselves. If everything's cool, great. If not, then decide to either make it better or make peace with what it is. That might be the best to hope for.
As I wrap up this blog post, my mind wandered to Jimmy Buffett's wedding band, The Eagles and one of their lyrics from "Already Gone:"
"So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key."
Something to think about as we honor a President who freed others...and himself.
Be well my friends,
The Lincoln quote at the end of this blog post: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, "Letter To Henry L. Pierce and Others" (April 6, 1859), p. 376.