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Leveraging the Melancholy

Photo taken at The Morgan Library and Museum in new York City...on my iPhone.

Photo taken at The Morgan Library and Museum in new York City...on my iPhone.

I've started to write about topics in health and wellness that I find meaningful, insightful, puzzling, or just plain interesting. I've also come to realize that I know very little about this health and wellness space; professionals who specialize in psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology on a regular basis possess more knowledge about the human condition than I could ever comprehend. But that is what makes all of it so interesting. Science offers such a deep well of information and discovery that we will not be able to answer all of our questions in our lifetimes (or our children's lifetimes, and so on, forever. Forever ever. Forever ever?) *

I came across this article from The Atlantic about Abraham Lincoln (AKA my favorite president) the other day that really struck a cord with me. As many of you historians out there probably know, Lincoln suffered from depression. He had bouts of "melancholy", as people close to him recounted through letters and oral stories. His downtrodden demeanor worried his friends and colleagues and threatened to destroy his life on numerous occasions. This lifelong struggle eclipsed many of his victories, including being elected to Congress and then as the President of the United States. According to the article, during the Republican convention in Illinois, while the roof literally collapsed from the roar of the crowd when he took the stage, Lincoln could not bring himself to be happy. "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw," said a man named Johnson who attended the event. 

However, in the midst of all of this, he delivered the Gettysburg Address (one of the most prolific and important speeches in US history), wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, AND brought the 13th Amendment to a Congressional vote to abolish slavery. He made such an impact on his generation that it is still felt today. So how did this man, overwhelmed with dark clouds and drowning thoughts, manage to accomplish so much? He leveraged his melancholy. 

(Again, I'm no expert in depression or melancholy, and I wish I knew more about the human brain than I do. But I thought this article put a lot of Lincoln's story into some relatable perspective.)

Lincoln knew he was "unwell", as he so honestly worded it. He spent much of his days stuck in his head, trapped with thoughts about life, purpose, meaning. The article mentions his long battles with severe depression that lasted weeks at a time. On many occasions, he feared "carrying a knife" because of what could happen if left alone with it. At one point, he got medical help for his depression, which further indicated his recognition of his sadness. But in recognizing his mental state, he was able to find ways to move past it. He took a hard look at it and, while buried in it, he found ways to move through it.

Reading and writing often shook Lincoln out of his depressed state. Perhaps it provided a distraction, or it allowed him to navigate the feelings and use them to his advantage. He wrote poems about the state of his sadness and through his writing, he was able to express himself enough to get a clear head. He creatively kept himself active, moving forward. With enough momentum, Lincoln was able to propel himself beyond his mind into the present.

Through the clarity writing and reading provided, Lincoln was able to keep his eyes to the future. He let his goals and ambitions dictate his current actions. Lincoln hoped to make a profound impact on the world, and this desire pushed him forward. The article sums it up perfectly:

Yet, he said, he had an ‘irrepressible desire’ to accomplish something while he lived. He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and ‘so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.’ This was no mere wish, Lincoln said, but what he ‘desired to live for.’
— Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of "Lincoln's Great Depression"

Lincoln navigated his depression through recognition, momentum, and action. Through these small choices, he changed a nation. Based on this article, he didn't seek to alleviate his sadness or cure it. Rather, he used it to creatively make a conscious effort to utilize his melancholy. He actively pursued a life of meaning, and he always searched for the next step, the next way to make an impact, the next chapter. Constantly living in discomfort, he never settled for the easy life. He actively sought to push boundaries in through endeavors greater than himself. And though I didn't know Lincoln personally, I'd like to think this is true.

* These posts are meant to be explorations into topics about health and wellness. I'm not offering advice, but instead looking to create a dialogue with people who might find this stuff just as interesting as I do!