On Presidents’ Day I like to celebrate the birthday of my mental health hero.
On those mornings I wake up embarrassed that I have aired my dirty laundry to the world–i.e. confessed to whomever reads my blog–that I am, in fact, a holy whackjob, I pull out a five dollar bill. And I look at Abraham Lincoln.
“The inclination to exchange thoughts with one another is probably an original impulse of our nature,” Lincoln wrote in February of 1859. “If I be in pain I wish to let you know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you.”
If this great man, the most noble and courageous human being to ever breathe Illinois air (which was less polluted back then), could share his intimate self so freely with others, then what’s holding me back? In fact, by reading the details of Lincoln’s emotional anguish in articles about our 16th president and in Joshua Wolf Shenk‘s acclaimed book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” I became inspired to tell my story.
It’s to Abe, then, that I turn when my palms begin to sweat–when I start thinking that if Eric gets fired for telling his boss off (something he does twice a year) I’ll never be able to land a real job (especially in the government) now that I’ve published my mental health record online.
Abe will set me straight. Because he walked through any fear he felt.
“It is a peculiar feature of Lincoln’s story that, throughout his life, his response to suffering led to still greater suffering,” Shenk writes in his fascinating book. “His story endures in large part because he sank so deeply into that suffering and came away with increased humility and determination…. In his strange mix of deference to divine authority and willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom, the delicate fruit of a lifetime of pain.”
Consider the following words penned by Lincoln when he was 32 years old, in January of 1841:
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one happy face on the earth. I must die or be better it appears to me.”
And compare them to these sentences composed as part of the Gettysburg Address:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Wow. That kind of transformation doesn’t happen with a prescription of Prozac and a few therapy sessions (although that’s a good starting point). No, his sort of dramatic conversion happens only after lots of pain, and of the worst type–from staring for days or months or years at that which is ugliest in you and turning it into something beautiful.
Having articulated the very torment I have known, this mental health champion offers me clues on how to pull forward–through faith, humor, poetry, and a sense of purpose–and how to use my despair toward redemption.
When I look into Lincoln’s solemn eyes on my five dollar bill, I tap a sense of hope. Not hope that my sadness will evaporate completely. Because it certainly didn’t for Lincoln. But hope that my tears might teach and instruct me, evolve me into a more compassionate, humble, resilient, disciplined, patient, determined, inspiring, and whole human being. Like my fellow depressive and hero. Who turns a three-digit number around this time.