The reason why Lincoln’s story inspires so many people comes down to hope, says Shenk, author of “Lincoln’s Melancholy.” In the Winter 2007 Issue of the John Hopkins Depression and Anxiety Bulletin, Shenk was interviewed about the incredibly thorough and absorbing book that took him seven years to research and write.
From Shenk’s quotes, I learned even more about the man who earned the equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize, Purple Heart, and three Olympic Gold Medals in the mental health competition.
“The essential question that Lincoln grappled with during his lifetime was how do you have hope in the face of great suffering,” Shenk explains. “That question never ceases to be relevant for him. To me, Lincoln was a man who suffered more than anyone in his circle of contemporaries, and a man who achieved more than anyone in his circle. And the reason he was able to succeed all came down to hope.”
Shenk mentions a troubled young woman Lincoln counseled. The wise man didn’t tell her that she would recover immediately from her depression. He asked her to acknowledge hope, “to let a crack of light into her life, to know that it would not always be as dark as it was now. He advised her that if she could only keep a piece of that awareness in the midst of her great suffering, then her whole experience would change.”
Hope, yes. But how did he get there? How did he move past his sadness and anxiety?
I don’t think he did completely.
Shenk believes that for his entire life, Lincoln feared that he would go insane. (Knowing that is worth at least two trips to the shrink for me, because I have the same worry, as do most people who have ordered off a psych ward menu.) “The two main things Lincoln did to cope with his depression,” says Shenk, “were to articulate his suffering, through poetry especially, which helped him cut straight into the heart of real life. He would also tell jokes, spending much time laughing and making others laugh.” I wonder if our president knew the one about Santa getting seduced by a sexy blonde in lingerie…. Well, maybe he had more class than I do.
Shenk divides Lincoln’s “blueprint for a successful life with suffering” into three stages:
First the melancholic leader acknowledged his pain. He sat his problems down for a long interview and examined every square inch of them. He asked them how long they intended to stay with him, and when they said forever, he wrote up some rules.
“Very well,” he told them, “but there are curfews and you are not allowed to do A, B, and C.” Then he strapped a harness around each wild invisible body. According to Shenk, Lincoln learned to live with his pain and adapted to the pain on its own terms.
Finally, Abe turned to a cause greater than himself. “Listen guys,” he told his problems, “not only are you going to abide by these rules, you are going to chip in and help me do a few things around here because I know what you are capable of.” He channeled his suffering to make it work for him.
“Looking back at Lincoln’s life,” says Shenk, “what we can learn from him that can help us get through our own struggles with depression or other forms of mental illness boils down to a simple sentence: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.'”
How interesting. Those are the very words that kept me alive, the phrase my mom repeated to me almost every day of my 18-month darkness. For Lincoln, it certainly passed. And it will for me too if I ever get stuck again.
Learn more about Abraham Lincoln and his depression at Shenk’s website: www.lincolnsmelancholy.com.
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