I discovered a book that helped me understand how heartbreak and depression – two of the most isolating and disabling experiences I know – can expand one’s sense of connectedness and evoke the heart’s capacity to employ tension in the service of life. Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Shenk, is a probling examination of our sixteenth president’s journey with depression. What was then called “melancholy” first appeared in Lincoln’s twenties, when neighbors occasionally took him in for fear he might take his own life. Lincoln struggles with this affliction until the day he died, a dark thread laced through a life driven by the conviction that he was born to render some sort of public service.
Lincoln’s need to preserve his life by embracing and integrating his own darkness and light made him uniquely qualified to help America preserve the Union. Because he knew dark and light intimately – knew them as inseparable elements of everything human – he refused to split North and South into “good guys” and “bad guys,” a split that might have taken us closer to to the national version of suicide.
Instead, in his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, a month before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln appealed for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” animated by what one writer calls an “awe-inspiring sense of love for all” who bore the brunt of the battle. In his appeal to a deeply divided America, Lincoln points to an essential fact of our life together: if we are to survive and thrive, we must hold its divisions and contradictions with compassion, lest we lose our democracy.
From “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit” by Parker J. Palmer