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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

thoughts on: Lincoln's Melancholy

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

Shenk interweaves two threads in his book.  He reveals Lincoln to us through the eyes of his contemporaries, and he explores the differences in how "melancholy" was perceived in the 19th century and "depression" is today.  As he does so, he proposes that Lincoln's melancholy/sadness/depression was an integral part of who he was and what he accomplished, not something which, had he been cured, would have benefited him.  Or us.

Heavily drawing on letters and first hand accounts of Lincoln (and there are volumes of them), Shenk easily shows us that Lincoln's friends, neighbors, allies, and foes all remarked on sadness or melancholy being Lincoln's most distinctive trait.  Unlike today, this was not viewed as a  liability.  It caused enough concern at one point for his friends and neighbors to put him on what we would call today a suicide watch, but it was not considered something that would impede him over the years from working, marrying, and achieving greatness, which he did.

Indeed, Shenk feels that his lifelong melancholy, and what Lincoln learned through it, that enabled him to weather the ups and downs of politics with integrity and pursue a cause that he knew was greater than himself with humility.  It is a compelling argument, one that resonates as true.

Side notes, of a personal nature:
I say my husband is a pessimist.  He says he is a realist.  According to modern research, he is right.  Depressed and/or pessimistic people have more accurate perceptions of reality than happy people.  Apparently to be happy requires glossing over the bad or not noticing it.  Ignorance truly is bliss.

My husband used to like to argue with me about causes of the Civil War.  I don't know why.  He was very argumentative when he was young.  My side of the argument, which annoyed him because it lacked logic and was usually accompanied by tears, was that God wanted slavery to end, because it is just plain wrong, and that is why slavery was the true cause of the Civil War, no matter what people themselves believed at that time.  Guess who agreed with me?  Abraham Lincoln!  He cried a lot, too.  So now I consider my tears and lack of logic in good company.

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