In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk offers a picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)
My last post on Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), offered a brief preview of how Lincoln embodied mental illness and mental wellness (and even greatness) at the same time.
To best appreciate Lincoln’s greatness – his strength of character and mental fortitude – it helps to see him at his darkest, most desperate moments – in the valley of depression. This is the picture I want to offer here.
Lincoln once confided about his depression to a colleague, a fellow politician, who didn’t suspect that he suffered from depression. This man recalled, “He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket” (23).
His second episode of major depression was triggered by a “long period of intense work,” “profound personal stress,” and “a stretch of bleak weather.” He “spoke openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. He was unable to work. His friends feared that he might kill himself, and that if he lived, he might go insane” (23).
“By the time he was in his early thirties, he faced a lifetime of depression…The acute fits of his young manhood gave way to less histrionic, but more pervasive, spells of deep gloom. Dramatic public avowals of his misery gave way to a private but persistent effort to endure and transcend his suffering. Yet the suffering did not go away…And even when he began to do the work for which he is remembered…he continued to suffer” (23).
These passages describe a turbulent, and pitiable, emotional and mental state. Because of these episodes and his behaviors, some even thought Lincoln was crazy. Yet at this very point, it is worth remembering that this man, who couldn’t carry a knife from fear of hurting himself and at times believed that he would go insane, went on to become president of the United States and steer this nation through the Civil War and take the first major step toward freeing the nation’s slaves.
Earlier in the book he notes that unlike in ancient cultures and in every major religion, modern Western society is often unable to adequately deal with human suffering. Many see it as an accident or inconvenience of life that simply gets in the way of our comforts and happiness.
I share this excerpt because as someone who’s been influenced by this world, I’ve sometimes viewed suffering in this superficial way, especially my own. But we should be equipped to wrestle with it so as to learn from it and through it grow stronger. This isn’t the same thing as glorifying suffering and claiming that it is good in and of itself, but it is meant as a perspective that I believe is often missing but which is at the center of the Christian faith – where the greatest triumph over evil was achieved through the great suffering of a Perfect Man on a cross. As Keller writes: “Trials and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same” (190). Below are his points. His explanations for each point are worthwhile, so I encourage you to read them:
1. Suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves.
It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are…average people in Western society have extremely unrealistic ideas of how much control they have over how their lives go. Suffering removes the blinders.
2. Suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives.
We will see that some things have become too important to us. [Here he gives the example of someone who’s invested too much of their hopes in their career, which when this is lost or threatened, is devastated.]
3. Suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can.
When times are good, how do you know if you love God or just love the things he is giving you or doing for you? You don’t, really. In times of health and prosperity, it is easy to think you have a loving relationship to God. You pray and do your religious duties since it is comforting and seems to be paying off. But it is only in suffering that we can hear God ‘shouting’ a set of questions at us: ‘Were things all right between us as long as I waited on you hand and foot? Did you get into this relationship for me to serve you or for you to serve me? Were you loving me before, or only loving the things I was giving you?’
4. Suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials.
Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise. Before, when we saw others in grief, we may have secretly wondered what all the blubbering was about, why people can’t just suck it up and go on. Then it comes to us – and ever after, we understand. When we have suffered, we become more tenderhearted and able to help others in suffering. Suffering creates wisdom in people, if they handle it and it doesn’t make them hard.
In writing about the power of suffering to reveal someone’s true character, St. Augustine gave us this great metaphor: “Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends.” (I featured this quote as part of a recent post.)
So we might say that in his hour of greatest suffering – when for two months several doctors tried to save his life and remove the bullet fired by his murderer – President James Garfield gave forth a truly “delightful fragrance,” giving us an example of patience, grace, and charity in suffering that can only be found in the best of persons.
This is taken from the excellent Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard:
“Despite the fact that his health, his work, and quite possibly his life had been suddenly and senselessly taken from him, he remained unfailingly cheerful and kind, day after day.” His doctor said that throughout his illness, he never approached Garfield “without meeting an extended hand, and an expression of thankful recognition of the efforts being made for his comfort and recovery.”
“While Garfield’s body had begun to fail him, his courtesy never did, nor his sense of humor…[he] now used humor to put those around him at ease” (208).
“Garfield…made every effort to assure those around him that he was not only well but content…He endured without complaint excruciating pain and daily humiliations,” and and attendant said that he “rarely spoke of his condition and seldom expressed a want” (223).
It’s easy to feel happy and be nice when life is going well, but how do you react when things get difficult? How do you treat others, how do you view life, and what do you think of God when affliction comes knocking? Perhaps it’s not even dramatic suffering, such as losing a loved one, but even mundane, ordinary inconveniences and difficulties. To use the metaphor below, do you begin to shake in the wind and lose your leaves at the first drop of temperature? And if you say you believe in God and his promises, does this faith flee at the first sign of misfortune?
In his classic work, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 1877), the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), wrote the following about the power of affliction to reveal our true nature:
“The winds of winter soon show us which of the trees are evergreen and which are not. The storms of affliction and care are useful in the same way. They discover whose faith is real, and whose is nothing but profession and form.”
St. Augustine, a giant of the Church unrivaled in his brilliance, also wrote on the effect of affliction in City of God (Penguin, 2003), which he wrote following the fall of Rome:
“The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clear the grain…in the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayer and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends” (14).
Related to this topic, I encourage you to see my post about the failure of modern society to account for suffering here.
What does it look like for a father to wisely and lovingly instruct his children in the realities of life? It looks like James Garfield (1831-1881), twentieth president of the United States, turning to books – those reliable and patient teachers – to teach his children a lesson in the difficulties of life, from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard (given to me by my dear parents-in-law):
“Searching for a way to teach his children this hard truth [the inevitability of death], to prepare them for what lay ahead, Garfield had often turned to what he knew best – books. After dinner one evening, he pulled a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello off the shelf and began to read the tragedy aloud. ‘The children were not pleased with the way the story came out,’ he admitted in his diary, but he hoped that they would come to ‘appreciate stories that [do not] come out well, for they are very much like a good deal of life'” (19).
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.