Why Lincoln’s Melancholy Is A Must Read

by Bill Brenner on December 7, 2009

I’ve always been something of a history nerd and am especially drawn to stories about those who have achieved greatness despite the crippling impact of mental illness. Winston Churchill was a sufferer (he called it his Black Dog). Theodore Roosevelt suffered from bipolar disorder. And Abraham Lincoln’s depression is well documented.

I just finished reading an excellent book on the latter: Lincoln’s Melancholyby Joshua Wolf Shenk. For anyone who has struggled with mental illness, it’s a must read because Shenk goes beyond simply detailing Lincoln’s episodes of depression and outlines the coping mechanisms he developed to get through the fog. In fact, the author argues, those very coping mechanisms fueled Lincoln’s greatness.

On the promotional website for the book, the author answers the question of how Lincoln was able to convert depression into greatness and how his coping tools came into play:

“First of all, in dealing with his depression head on — addressing it, staring it in the eye, grappling with it, and getting a hold of it within himself — Lincoln did work that turned out to be enormously character building and valuable to him. In one sense, the muscles he developed over a lifetime of suffering prepared him for the challenges that he faced in his presidency. Second, he had a tendency to see the dark truths of a situation, and he drew on this powerfully in his rhetoric and his actions. Experiments have shown that people who suffer from depression also exhibit something called “depressive realism” — and this applies to Lincoln. Finally, the depths of emotion that he explored as a result of his depression contributed to a deep creative capacity — as a writer and thinker. In his first inaugural address, he urged that the country would be well again when touched by “the better angels of our nature.” He didn’t say that that the worse angels would be killed or that they would go away. To the contrary, the image suggests that selves, and nations, are multi-faceted, capable of better and prone to worse, and locked in a struggle. It’s justifiably a famous phrase, and it reaches deep into the psyche because it reflects an experience that every human being knows intuitively, one of division and conflict, broken-ness and harmony, suffering and reward. These were ideas that Lincoln lived and struggled with much of his life.”

Check it out.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

readlearnwrite January 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I know this is a little late, but I just finished this as well and loved it. I am a huge fan of how the author brought as much about modern psychology to the table as he did historical reference.

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