“What I marvel at, what gives me such hope, is that this man could overcome depression, self-doubt and the constraints of biography and not only act decisively but retain his humanity. Like a figure from the Old Testament, he wandered the earth, making mistakes, loving his family but causing them pain, despairing over the course of events, trying to divine God’s will. He did not know how things would turn out, but he did his best.”
— Barack Obama
The black dog is a scourge many of us have faced. Indeed, it may well climb on our backs and bark and growl at the most inappropriate times. What are we to do?
Lincoln, sixteenth U.S. President, suffered major depressive disorder. He was weathered chronically by life, swinging between the extremes of passion and nonchalance. It seems he grew through being constantly dogged by thoughts for suicide, and had several periods of constant ideation toward self-harm. He was also the subject of several life-jarring events that probably contributed to his mental illness.
It’s incredible that a person who did so much for reform also battled with his personal demons, proving what one can do against the flow of probability.
Lincoln turned depression into wisdom. But how did he do it?
1. He refused to just suffer. He learned to learn what he could from it.
2. He defined and consumed himself in goals. He became bigger than himself and gave himself to an ideal bigger than he could ever truly be had he not widened his perspective.
3. Lincoln thought a lot about his thinking and about how his feelings impacted his thoughts. He grew through the intensity of thinking that buries us in fatiguing analysis and learned to harness his thinking and accept it.
4. He developed an intense love for learning, reading everywhere he went, even as he walked and waited and wallowed. He used learning as a distraction. He kept his mind occupied on nobler things than his pain.
5. Lincoln also developed a great sense of empathy for others that he was able to disburse upon himself also. He was able to feel for others and himself also.
6. He accepted the mysteries of God, suffering, the universe, and the natural order of things with great humility, which served him well in not complicating perplexing things more than he ought.
7. He used an industrious mind to produce a passion for work and he developed a keen sense of humour. Both of these he used as key diversions from his spiritual lethargies.
Depression appears an unconquerable nemesis. But, as Abraham Lincoln’s life attests, there are several strategies of resilience, learning, re-thinking, work, and humour that can help.
One way to live with the black dog is to walk with it and talk with it every day. What may seem impossible is first made real through practice, and then, second, it redefines our very beliefs.
Learning to embrace the reality of one’s pain is one way to learn a new reality buoyant with hope.
Learning to fight our way through the pain of depression is about believing there is a way through. God will guide us.
© 2015 S. J. Wickham.