Abraham Lincoln portrait, by Casey Childs
A new portrait of Abraham Lincoln caught my attention today. When I saw the look in his eyes and the story his face tells, I put my head in my hands and got pretty teary. It made me recall this poignant article about Lincoln from the Atlantic Monthly, written by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk writes, "Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a "character issue"—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation."
We all have weaknesses, yet sometimes it is exactly those "character issues" which lead to good things, even great things.
The closing paragraph of this article focuses on how Abraham Lincoln integrated his condition with his extraordinary contributions, unable to recover from his depression. Shenk writes, "Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view.
"Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. "Biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives," the critic Louis Menand writes, "in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a 'breakthrough' or arrives at a 'turning point' before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains."
"Lincoln's melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. 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 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." [Schenk, Lincoln's Great Depression", Atlantic Monthly, October 2005].