This article does not in any way glamorize depression or suicide. If you happen to experience depression or suicidal ideations, never hesitate to ask for help. It really goes a long way.
“A fitful strain of melancholy will ever be found inseparable from the perfection of the beautiful.”
Edgar Allan Poe
When the Heavens Hung in Black
“Those of us who are familiar with melancholy well know its elusive nature. It operates in deep recesses of thought and feeling, hidden not only from the view of an observer but, often, from the melancholic as well.”
Joshua Wolf Shenk
“I never will forget the scene. He sat down in the door of the smoke house and buried his face in his hands. The tears slowly trickled between his bony fingers and his gaunt frame shook with sobs,” accounted Abraham Lincoln’s neighbor, who brought him the news that his sister had died.
Such is the agony that is embedded into our human experience of loss and grief, that it is in a way comparable to picking up a paperclip — When we pick one up, it comes affixed with a few more. Likewise, when we experience a loss, it tends to bring up other losses in our past. Our burden of grief unconsciously includes that of even the smallest losses, like the loss of a pet cat, or even a friend who had to move out to another school when we were little.
One could only imagine how it must have been for Lincoln, who in a relatively short amount of time, went through a string of losses. He lost his sister, his infant brother, his mother, and later, his sweetheart. And not to mention, his arduous odyssey as a young lawyer, and having to experience yet another great loss in his older years when his little son passed away.
While Lincoln’s acquaintances remembered him as a very funny and warm character, they remembered him too by the unassailable strain of deep sadness that he carried with him. “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked,” described William Herndon, his law partner.
In his 20s, Lincoln suffered numerous breakdowns and often confessed about his suicidal ideations. He never dared to carry a pocket knife, as he feared that he might take his own life. Friends were overwhelmingly concerned about him, as they would take away knives, scissors, razors, anything sharp from his room, and put him on watch when he wandered off into the woods with a gun.
If Lincoln’s condition were to be examined today, it would likely be classified as a major depression. It’s when one experiences a depressed mood that lasts for at least 2 weeks, a loss of appetite, a loss of pleasure in normally enjoyable activities, either excessive or insufficient sleep, fatigue, and recurring thoughts of suicide and feelings of worthlessness.
It’s also common for depressives to experience great difficulty in thinking or concentrating. It’s when your mind seems to be spinning, like a never-ending carousel of anxious thoughts, where you frantically jump from one thought to another, without being able to grasp on any one.
In the case of suicide, depressives commonly undergo what psychologists term as “cognitive restriction”, when their whole world becomes confined to only two possibilities — To live or to leave.
Some people might think that even having suicidal thoughts is blasphemous enough, but the reality isn’t that simple. “The single most dangerous word in all of suicidology is the four-letter word only,” remarked suicidologist Edwin Schneidman. Depressives simply want the pain to end, and in the heat of the moment, suicide could seem like the only option.
“The idea of Hell does not ordinarily enter into suicide,” said Schneidman. “The destination (or concern) is not to go anywhere, except away. The goal is to stop the flow of intolerable consciousness; not to continue in an afterlife or an eternity. ‘Escape’ does not mean to escape from one torture chamber to enter another. In suicide the goal is to achieve a peace of mindlessness.”
And perhaps what’s most painful is to feel that all of these symptoms would last forever, every time they happen. As clinical psychologist Lauren Slater remarked, “If you were to be really, really depressed but know that it was going to end in five days, it wouldn’t be depression. The terror is in what the future holds.”
In the nadir of his existence, Lincoln was forced to question himself about what his life was really for. Slowly, he found his vocation. He told his best friend, Joshua Speed, that he could very well end his life, yet he is held back by an “irrepressible desire” to achieve something worthwhile, to be of great service to the world around him. It was not a pipe dream, it was what he really “desired to live for”.
It was his vocation to end slavery. “Let there be no compromise on extending slavery,” he wrote. “Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now, than any time hereafter.”
From his traumas and tragedies, he gained humility, as he saw the events of life as arranged and driven by God, and that he was only a passenger. He found solace in his relentless self-education, and in sharing laughs, telling stories and jokes. It was said that he would have a humor book ready in his coat pocket and on his desk, because it kept him alive. Remarkably, he grew from questioning whether he could go on living, to how he would live the rest of his life.
When he became the President of the United States, he dedicated himself to a cause greater than himself, with purpose and humility. He invited his nation to find meaning in hard times, to find blessing in life’s burdens.
“The suffering he had endured lent him clarity, discipline and faith in hard times — Perhaps especially in hard times,” wrote author Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Schooled in his melancholy, he had the patience and courage to deal with the ever-growing slavery crisis that his predecessor, President Buchanan had not. And when the gloomiest hours of the Civil War dragged on, when the “heavens were hung in black”, as Lincoln described, he never lost heart. Lincoln, who was well-acquainted with darkness, didn’t break.
As General Ulysses S. Grant said of Lincoln during those turbulent times, “The President has more nerve than any of his advisers.”
The Hidden Gift of Depression
The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Whenever Allah wills good for a person, He subjects him to adversity.”
(Hadith narrated by Bukhari)
One of the many beautiful gems that the Qur’an offers us on hardship is that “Indeed, with hardship comes ease” (94:5,6). This same message couldn’t be emphasized enough, that is stated in two consecutive verses. What’s more, it doesn’t say that ease will come at the end of hardship, but that it comes with the hardship itself. The gift of ease is packed in the process of undergoing that hardship, of feeling and experiencing everything that comes with it.
From a biological standpoint, depression could be a signal for our mind and body to rest. Our body releases stress hormones such as serotonin when we face immense pressure. In tandem with Sigmund Freud’s definition of mental health, that it is our ability to work, play, and love — Depression is when we couldn’t function in these three faculties. Depression can be acknowledged as a call from Mother Nature for us to settle down and regain those abilities.
But other than that, depression also comes with the gift of profound resilience and empathy. In relation to Abraham Lincoln, these were the much-needed traits in a leader during those extremely precarious times when the nation would either triumph into a more civilized era, or fall into the ravine of a new dark age.
As Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote, “His melancholy emerged at a time of profound need, and it seems to have helped him thrive. Feeling bad was part of what helped him do well, as his moods consistently provoked empathy, assistance, and admiration.”
Fostered from a lifetime of inner unrest, Lincoln possessed an invaluable ability called “depressive realism”, or seeing the world as it is, rather than how he hoped it should be. He never ran from bad news, and he had the patience to endure and stay in that state of great tension, that he was not afraid to look at them straight in the eye. It was this ability that let him take on very calculated strategies, and have a vast and precise knowledge of human nature. Though a civil war was undoubtedly the last resort, he knew that it was inevitable. He was willing to face uncomfortable truths, over blissful ignorance.
Even though he was certainly ambitious, he was never blindly optimistic. “The most trying thing in all of this war is that the people are too sanguine; they expect too much at once,” he once said. And as William Herndon observed, some people saw the world around them as “ornamented with beauty, life, and action.” Lincoln however, “crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham…Everything came to him in its precise shape and color.”
And of course, his heartfelt empathy was what drove him to abolish slavery in the first place. But what’s truly special about his empathy is his being able to put himself in the shoes of not only the common man or his soldiers, but also his enemies.
He could foresee that in war, victors have a tendency to be oppressive, and in turn, the vanquished could be resentful and even vengeful. With that, he inculcated humility in his nation, reminding them that both the Northern and Southern states were responsible for slavery. As he famously declared in a speech, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right.”
The depression that emerged in Lincoln’s 20s never really went away. In fact, it only deepened as he got older. But he learned to acknowledge it, to soothe himself and be at peace with his inner demons. That being said, Lincoln’s triumph was not one of transformation, but integration. It was about him making his melancholy work for him, integrating it into his life, rather than shunning it, so that it could serve him in his cause.
As Joshua Wolf Shenk proffered, “Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted for as an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering…Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy. The problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”
Perhaps above all, he was now in a position to be of service, to provide comfort to others who might be facing the same trials.
In an endearing letter to a woman whose father died in the Civil War, he consoled, “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time…I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.”
It echoes the deeply elegiac words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty…Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.”
Strength Doesn’t Always Mean Persevering
The Prophet (pbuh) said, “No fatigue, nor disease, nor anxiety, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.”
(Hadith narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
As much as Lincoln’s story teaches us to have endurance during turbulent times, wisdom isn’t without its caveats. There are situations that are not okay for you to persevere or stay in, especially if it endangers your mental health, or other aspects of your life.
As therapists like to equip, “You don’t get any bonus points for suffering”. There are no rewards for “toughing it out” or being strong for the sake of being strong, when a situation isn’t healthy for you.
For instance, if you feel ill or if you experience any difficulty, don’t be meek in asking for help. Getting help isn’t a sign of weakness, but strength, because you have to courage to acknowledge that you need other people, that you can’t solve everything on your own.
“Don’t be ashamed to need help,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal. “Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
Secondly, in the context of our relationships with other people, abuse of any kind, from anyone, must never be tolerated.
A great number of us would withstand being mistreated or devalued because we wouldn’t want to come off as unkind, or simply because we’ve been too familiar with the situation.
Well, you need to respect yourself, and you need to be kind to yourself first. You have to know when to walk away from a situation, as well as establish boundaries for yourself.
Because hey, you don’t get any bonus points for suffering.
Take good care of yourself, and if you ever feel alone, always remember that you really do have people out there who love you and care for you. Oftentimes, a hardship is not as bad as it feels, and nothing happens except with God’s permission.
Don’t worry, we’re in good hands.