I have always loved Abraham Lincoln. As a child, I read all of the biographies on him I could find. I can still picture the section of my elementary school library where the biographies were shelved, and even in my recollection I quickly move from the A’s through the K’s to get to Lincoln.
Lincoln’s depression, a scholar’s look
I love his witty sense of humor, his passion for justice, his devotion to family, his relentless pursuit of knowledge, and his profound wisdom. I also love knowing that he thrived, despite a lifelong struggle with deep sadness. In his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk says this:
In three key criteria — the factors that produce depression, the symptoms of what psychiatrists call major depression, and the typical age of onset — the case of Abraham Lincoln is perfect. It could be used in a psychiatry textbook to illustrate a typical depression. Yet Lincoln’s case is perfect, too, in a very different sense: it forces us to reckon with the limits of diagnostic categories and raises fundamental questions about the nature of illness and health. *
Lincoln, a complex character
According to his biographers, Abraham Lincoln was many things: intelligent, diplomatic, compassionate, and humorous. He also suffered from depression, so he was often contemplative, withdrawn, and despondent. But, he was never just one of those things; all of those qualities combined to make him the great man he was. If one ingredient had been missing, he wouldn’t have been the Abraham Lincoln we know.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Every year on February 12, I re-read the Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. Have you read it lately? Well, if not, you may not know that this little speech was given at a ceremony to dedicate a cemetery where soldiers who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg were buried. You may not know that this battle was a great turning point in the war, when the Union began its climb to victory. You may not know that Lincoln was not supposed to speak at the service that day–his attendance was sort of an afterthought. The keynote speaker, some guy named Edwards, talked for an hour or two, but nobody remembers what he said. (A good reminder for this public speaker!)
What were Lincoln’s thoughts that day?
Here are the few words Lincoln said that day (actually his edited version–like all good writers, he tweaked his original before publishing). You’ll certainly recognize these familiar phrases. But this time, as you read them, feel the tension of battle in the air, tension laced now with the hope of victory. Feel the weariness of Lincoln’s soul as he counts the costs, naming them one by one–“John, David, Mark,. . .” Hear his heart and mind questioning, “Is the union really worth it?” Look into Lincoln’s sad eyes, his deeply lined face (he looks so much older than he did just four years ago) and hear his spirit sing out, “God bless America, land that I love.” Sing with him. We are, after all, the living. And we have much unfinished work before us.
The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
*Shenk excerpt found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4976127)