I just finished reading Lincoln’s Melancholy. It is a book that examines in great depth the inner life and sadness to the point of despair of arguably our greatest president. The fact that he struggled with depression is fairly well known. I mention his depression in my book The Unwelcome Blessing. However, until reading Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book I had no idea how deep and pervasive his problem was with clinical depression — labeled melancholy in the 19th Century.
In his mid-20s he had at least three episodes of what would qualify for a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder today. His friends feared that he was suicidal to the point where they kept close watch on him and even hid knives from him. Today, he undoubtedly would have been hospitalized and treated with psychoactive medication. However, beyond the episodes of severe depression, Lincoln’s whole life was one tinged with a sadness so deep that today he would surely be diagnosed with Dysthymic Disorder.
Dysthymia is a long depression of mild to moderate intensity. It is what I have coped with most of my life. In most instances dysthymia is life-long. Many dysthymics get by without treatment but often turn to alcohol, over-eating and street drugs to cope.
In Lincoln’s time, struggling with melancholy did not yet have the stigma that became attached to it in the 20th Century. If anything it was considered somewhat ennobling. In 1972, Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton was briefly the VP running mate of George McGovern. When his history of hospitalizations for depression became public he was forced to withdraw from the race. It would be much the same today. President Trump could utter one outrageous statement after another and still get elected, but had he had a history of hospitalizations for depression he’d have never won a single primary.
Shenk makes the point that Lincoln’s melancholy (dysthymia) was very much part and parcel of who he was as an individual — and that at a fairly young age he came to accept that his life would always be one of sadness. Also, when still young he came to the realization that he had an important destiny to fulfill. It is what drove him on to transcend one failure after another until, almost miraculously, in 1860, he is elected President of the United States with only 40% of the popular vote.
Lincoln undoubtedly had somewhat of a biological predisposition to depression. However, beyond that he was born into grinding poverty and lost his mother at a young age. His father was a hard man but not abusive. Lincoln basically had only one year of formal education. He was an autodidact who eventually read enough law to become a fairly successful circuit riding attorney in Central Illinois. However, even after he achieved a modicum of success more than one person remarked that he was the saddest person they’d ever met.
So how did Abe cope with the ever present demon of his melancholy? (1) He read a lot. He favored Shakespeare— particularly the tragedies. Though he never joined a church, he read the Bible extensively. The book of Job particularly resonated with him, and one can easily see biblical cadences and allusions in his speeches (2) He wrote poetry that vented his sadness, and there are a few surviving examples of his poems. (3) He loved humor. He read the popular satirical magazines of his day. He could suddenly emerge from an obvious state of sadness and introversion with a joke or a funny story that would entertain everyone in his presence. He laughed at his own jokes–and obviously sharing them with others brought immense pleasure to him. Humor was this most solitary man’s way of connecting with others.
The ways Lincoln coped with his deep despair echo many of my own suggestions in The Unwelcome Blessing. I cite humor, journaling, creativity–and reading the Bible (particularly Psalms) as ways of overcoming depression. Dysthymic Disorder really doesn’t have a cure as such but it can be coped with and overcome, and it is in that striving that one grows. It can truly become an unwelcome blessing.