Abraham Lincoln’s Perfect Imperfection

The following is excerpted from the article Lincoln’s Great Depression in Atlantic Magazine, October 2005 by Joshua Wolf Shenk. He’s author of the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation…

But Lincoln’s melancholy is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see that life more clearly, and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas—of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain; and finally, of mental trials as a flaw in character and a disqualification for leadership.

Throughout its three major stages—which I call fear, engagement, and transcendence—Lincoln’s melancholy upends such views. With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.

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