Thursday, July 16, 2009

Looking Up from Down

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness
by Joshua Wolf Shenk

One would not think that this would be an uplifting book - how can a book about depression be anything but a downer? Amazingly, Shenk pulls it off. This is an informative, interesting, and (yes) hopeful book for anyone who has ever suffered from depression or know someone who has. One of the book's great strengths is that it does not constantly stay in the past - Shenk pulls in current thought on depression and mental illness and artfully weaves it with writings from the time of Lincoln's life on the subject. Some of the most moving material comes from Lincoln's own writings as well. It is clear that there were periods of his life during which Lincoln was truly tormented, and it appears that he always carried with him an aura of melancholy.

Shenk makes a convincing case that Lincoln's love for humor and wit was at least in part a defense against the depression that dogged him for most of his life. It is reassuring to see that even someone who faces down the demon on a daily basis can still experience moments of joy and laughter. I think humor is one thing our society is losing touch with. We take ourselves way too seriously. Lincoln showed how one side of his nature could balance out the other, and that balance was part of what kept him sane and functioning at the level that he did.

Lincoln had a least two major depressive episodes in his young adult life - during one of them his close friends even placed him on suicide watch. An admirable characteristic of Lincoln's that Shenk believes came from his depression was his determination to do something of significance with his life. He had been stuck in the pit of despair, and asked himself whether he would live or die. Having determined somewhere inside of himself that he wished to live, he needed some thing to work toward, something to live for. That purpose turned out to be ending the moral evil of slavery, and Lincoln worked toward that goal steadily and efficiently until the premature end of his days.

There is no doubt that Lincoln experienced loss and sorrow - his mother died when he was still a young boy. One woman who was possibly a great love of his (Ann Rutledge) died when he was in his early 20s. He lost two sons while he was still living, and only one of his four sons survived to adulthood. His marriage was troubled. And through it all he had this malaise of melancholy to contend with. Yet he was able to turn that affliction into a motivating force in his own life and in the life of our country.

It is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of history that Lincoln's life ended when it did. There is no doubt that he changed our country for the better, and I think Reconstruction after the Civil War would have gone much more smoothly and been a more conciliatory process had he been leading it.

Reverent Reader


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