I just finished reading a very insightful book on Abraham Lincoln called Lincoln’s Melancholy, How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The book goes into great detail about Lincoln’s bouts with depression throughout his adult life and how that depression shaped his thoughts and attitudes towards others. It’s always bothered me, for a lack of a better way of putting it, that a man who was probably our greatest president, wouldn’t pass the media test today. Would we pass over a great man for a camera ready Super Hero with bleached teeth and hair plugs instead?
Could we elect someone who we knew suffered from depression as our president? The very thought today seems laughable. Sometimes, I think we want cookie cutter candidates that are flawless; they must have made perfect life decisions from birth to adulthood. In other words, humans need not apply for the presidency!
The below statement is an account of Lincoln, by William J. Bross, after Lincoln had been chosen the state’s Republican candidate for president in Decatur, Illinois.
“The next day, the convention closed. The crowds dispersed, leaving behind cigar stubs and handbills and the smell of sweat and whiskey. After the wigwam had emptied, the lieutenant governor of the state, William J. Bross, walked the floor. He noticed his state party’s choice for president sitting alone at the end of the hall. Lincoln’s head was bowed, his gangly arms bent at the elbows, his hands pressed to his face. As Bross approached, Lincoln noticed him and said, “I’m not very well.” (Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk)
William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, said of Lincoln, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Can you imagine such a candidate on the cover of the National Enquirer? We think we’re more progressive than earlier generations but, on the issue mental illness, we’re very much unforgiving Neanderthals – of ourselves and of others.
For some reason, we think we’re always supposed to be happy even when life stinks. Who ever came up with such a ridiculous notion? Lincoln is proof that depressed people can achieve great things. Interestingly, the book revealed that during Lincoln’s time, depression (they called it melancholy then) wasn’t necessarily frowned upon. It was part of life. I wouldn’t go so far as to say depression was celebrated; but it wasn’t considered a character flaw. Letters written during Lincoln’s time revealed people’s willingness to discuss their inner demons with friends, family members and sometimes even their business acquaintances. The Oprah “tell all” generation wasn’t our generation; it was Lincolns! Once getting past the melodramatic language that many Victorian era letters contain – a candid picture emerges of people dealing with life’s struggles – sometimes even exaggerating their troubles, instead of glossing them over. But then again, maybe we’re not so different from our past Victorian relatives.
People still feel the need to express themselves. The Internet is full of people sharing their thoughts and ideas. Some of us are even crazy enough to have a blog! However, college grads are encouraged not to have MySpace or Facebook pages because, heaven forbid, an employer might see something they don’t like! They might even get the impression that, do I dare say it, the applicant isn’t perfect! More than likely, a Victorian MySpace page would land a college grad on the perpetual unemployment line. Can you imagine such a statement being read by an employer: “I feel that I am not always quite worthy of the task before me; an overwhelming fear sweeps across my soul revealing my inadequacies, as I prepare to enter the work world.” Honesty doesn’t earn us many points in the business world – not when we’re being truthful about our flaws – which may not really be flaws at all!
Still, I’m not convinced that Lincoln wouldn’t be able to connect with people today. He wouldn’t cut it as an underwear model but how many of us could? He had doubts about himself and even was on the verge of suicide at his lowest moments – I bet most of us could relate to that as well. However, Lincoln was great with words and came up with some of the best “sound bites” in American history. Lincoln was an excellent debater and funny. I think people would love him today, even if the media mocked him for not being mentally perfect — and he was too sappy even for Oprah!