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Undoing as Remaking: How Abraham Lincoln Drew Poetry and Power from His Suicidal Depression

Life-affirming inspiration from a man who knew intimately “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.”

Undoing as Remaking: How Abraham Lincoln Drew Poetry and Power from His Suicidal Depression

“I am now the most miserable man living,” Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) wrote to his law partner three weeks before his thirty-third birthday. “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”

Pensive, sensitive, and compassionate by nature, Lincoln felt life deeply. As a child, he told his stepsister that an ant’s life is as sweet to the ant as ours is to us and ardently chided the other boys for setting sea turtles on fire with that unthinking cruelty children at play can have. As a teenager, he defied his family’s tradition of considering basic literacy sufficient education for their line of work, sneaking away from his farm duties to read and study, so that a cousin would later remember him as “very lazy… always reading — scribbling — writing — ciphering — writing poetry &c. &c.” As a young adult, he came to see himself as cursed with the “peculiar misfortune” of dreaming dreams too large not to explode with disappointment.

abrahamlincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Five years after leaving his father’s farm, the first detonation of depression shook the young man’s world. His legal studies strained him beyond capacity. Reading day and night, he grew emaciated. Meanwhile, a typhoid epidemic swept the land with a tidal wave of death, taking with it the life of Ann Rutledge — a young woman who uniquely understood Lincoln’s sensitivity and about whom he had come to care deeply — so deeply that no one around them quite understood the nature of their bond, though generations have taken the liberty of qualifying it, manufacturing an entire romantic mythos around a brittle skeleton of spare facts.

Whatever the private reality of the relationship, it was in this period of strife and loss, surrounded by widespread death and stretched beyond his own creaturely limits, that Lincoln came to think seriously of suicide. The idea grew so intrusive, so actionable, that he no longer trusted himself to carry a pocket knife. Friends and neighbors watched his mental unraveling with growing concern, so alarmed to see him wander the woods aimlessly with his gun that they set up a suicide watch.

Lincoln lived. But from that point on, like Keats, like Tchaikovsky, he suffered frequent visitations of deadly despair, the character-shaping power of which Joshua Wolf Shenk explores in Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (public library).

After that first rather public episode of suicidal depression, Lincoln learned to hide his heavy heart behind his famous humor, behind a facade of such cheerful levity that even those working most closely with him would never see him despondent or ill-tempered. But it spilled out obliquely, through the cracks of compassion: Reaching out to salve a friend’s savaging depression with his great gift of consolation, he wrote with a poignant familiarity of “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.”

“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Unbeknownst to anyone, in the summer of his thirtieth year, Lincoln penned an intensely sorrowful poem titled “The Suicide’s Soliloquy,” printed anonymously in a small Whig paper in Illinois alongside advertisements for whale oil and French cologne. It would take scholars 139 years to identify his authorship. With its haunting story-framing epigraph and its dramatic narration by a fictional character, it was Lincoln’s way of safely rehearsing in the darkest recesses of his imagination what it might be like to enact the central pull of suicide — the tempting illusion that total self-erasure is the only way to terminate the mental anguish nothing else has allayed.

THE SUICIDE’S SOLILOQUY

The following lines were said to have been found near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest, on the flat branch of the Sangamon, some time ago.

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
    Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
    Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
    Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
    Or by the ravens’ cry.

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
    And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
    Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
    Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
    By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
    That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
    And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
    May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
    Will help me to forget.

Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
    To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
    Me, who am damn’d on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from your sheath,
    And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
    And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
    Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
    My last — my only friend!

This blackest despair was more than a poetic image for Lincoln. Three years later, when another acute episode of depression subsumed him and he came to see himself as the most miserable man on Earth, he arrived at the ultimate equation:

To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.

He did get better. He did remember what we so frequently and dangerously forget when pressed under the leaden lid of depression — that the light of being returns. Like any great artist of life, Lincoln learned to transmute his suffering into fuel for building a more beautiful and light-filled world, turning the private anguish of his suicidal depression into a powerful political metaphor to mobilize his nation’s spirit. “If destruction be our lot,” he declaimed in one of his most powerful speeches, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” (Whitman — who reverenced Lincoln as “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” — echoed the sentiment with redoubled conviction across the epoch-stride of the Civil War in his prescient essay Democratic Vistas: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.”)

Living with his own depression, Lincoln understood intimately that what is true of the spirit of a person is true of the spirit of a people — our undoing always serves an invitation to learn new modes of making: making beauty, making meaning, making the life we want to live and the world we want to live it in.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

Couple with two centuries of great writers — including Keats, Whitman, Thoreau, Carson, and Hansberry — on the surest salve for depression, then revisit Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, Mary Oliver’s spare and splendid antidote to melancholy, William Styron’s classic interior tour of what depression is really like, and this tender illustrated meditation on what it takes to unblue our sadnesses.

BP

The Four Buddhist Mantras for Turning Fear into Love

“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence.”

The Four Buddhist Mantras for Turning Fear into Love

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her magnificent early work on love and how to live with fear. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

This notion of presence as the antidote to fear and the crucible of love is as old as the human heart, as old as the consciousness that first felt the blade of anticipatory loss pressed against the exposed underbelly of the longing for connection. It is at the center of millennia-old Buddhist philosophy and comes alive afresh, in a splendidly practical way, in Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm (public library) by the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who continues to enrich, ennoble, and empower with his teachings well into his nineties.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In the general Buddhist style of befriending complexity through simplicity and with his particular gift for simple words strung into a rosary of immense wisdom radiating immense kindness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

We have a great, habitual fear inside ourselves. We’re afraid of many things — of our own death, of losing our loved ones, of change, of being alone. The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch nonfear. It’s only here and now that we can experience total relief, total happiness… In the practice of Buddhism, we see that all mental formations — including compassion, love, fear, sorrow, and despair — are organic in nature. We don’t need to be afraid of any of them, because transformation is always possible.

Such transformation is possible only through deliberate practice — none more challenging, or more rewarding, than the practice of transforming fear into love. In consonance with his teaching that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” he anchors this transmutation practice in four mantras “effective for watering the seeds of happiness in yourself and your beloved and for transforming fear, suffering, and loneliness.”

Red poppy from Elizabeth Blackwell’s pioneering 18th-century encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Unlike a prayer — which channels a hope at some imagined entity capable of interceding in favor of that hope and has only as a side benefit (though arguably its only real and robust benefit) the psychological self-clarification that comes from honing our hopes in language — a mantra is not addressed at anything or anyone external and is entirely devoted to distilling the object of hope to its clearest essence. This, in and of itself, transforms the hope into an intent, making it more actionable — but also saving it from the particular complacency against which Descartes admonished as he considered the vital relationship between fear and hope. A mantra is therefore not a form of magical thinking, for while there is a sense of magic to how such distillation seems to shift the situation by its very utterance, it is an entirely practical sort of magic, for a mantra simply clarifies, concentrates, and consecrates intent, and all meaningful transformation springs from purposeful, devoted intent.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

A mantra is a kind of magic formula that, once uttered, can entirely change a situation. It can change us, and it can change others. But this magic formula must be spoken in concentration, with body and mind focused as one. What you say in this state of being becomes a mantra.

Within this conceptual framework, he offers four mantras for transforming fear into love, beginning with “Mantra for Offering Your Presence.” A generation after Simone Weil insisted that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” he writes:

The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. So the first mantra is very simple: “Dear one, I am here for you.”

Simple though this mantra might seem, he reminds us that actually cultivating the capacity for it — the capacity for presence, which is where our capacity for love resides — is intensely difficult against the tidal wave of demand and distraction that sweeps everyday life and sweeps us along with it, leaving us always on the brink of drowning, bereft of what Emerson celebrated as “the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.”

Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, 1876. Available as a print and a face mask.

A century after Tolstoy insisted that “love is a present activity only,” Thich Nhat Hanh gently reminds us that the greatest resource of our own heart — our greatest source of power, our mightiest antidote to fear — is the quality of love we give through the quality of our presence:

When you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? Come back to yourself, look into [their] eyes, and say, “Darling, you know something? I’m here for you.” You’re offering [them] your presence. You’re not preoccupied with the past or the future; you are there for your beloved. You must say this with your body and with your mind at the same time, and then you will see the transformation.

Such crystalline presence is the prerequisite for the next mantra — “Mantra for Recognizing Your Beloved”:

The second mantra is, “Darling, I know you are there, and I am so happy.”

To be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other person is the second step. Because you are fully there, you recognize that the presence of your beloved is something very precious. You embrace your beloved with mindfulness, and he or she will bloom like a flower. To be loved means first of all to be recognized as existing.

In a sentiment of especial relevance and consolation in these disembodied times, he reminds us that these mantras can be performed across distance, across wires and cables and screens, not requiring the physical presence of the beloved — however they are articulated, they are at bottom meditations containing all four elements of true love as described by the Buddha: love, compassion, joy, and freedom.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

While the third mantra, “Mantra for Relieving Suffering,” could be magnified and deepened by the atomic rewards of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “hugging meditation,” it too can be extended across the digital distance:

Even before you do anything to help, your wholehearted presence already brings some relief, because when we suffer, we have great need for presence of the person we love. If we are suffering and the person we love ignores us, we suffer more. So what you can do — right away — is to manifest your true presence to your beloved and say the mantra with all your mindfulness: “Dear one, I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.” And already your loved one will feel better.

Your presence is a miracle, your understanding of his or her pain is a miracle, and you are able to offer this aspect of your love immediately. Really try to be there, for yourself, for life, for the people you love. Recognize the presence of those who live in the same place as you, and try to be there when one of them is suffering, because your presence is so precious for this person.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

The fourth and final mantra, “Mantra for Reaching Out to Ask for Help,” seems on the surface to be self-concerned, but is in fact the crucible of self-care from which all unselfish love and presence spring. It is also, Thich Nhat Hanh observes, the most difficult of the four, for it dwells in the place of our greatest vulnerability and at the same time pushes us to lean on our most crippling crutch:

This mantra is for when you are suffering and you believe that your beloved has caused you suffering. If someone else had done the same wrong to you, you would have suffered less. But this is the person you love the most, so you suffer deeply, and the last thing you feel like doing is to ask that person for help… So now it is your pride that is the obstacle to reconciliation and healing. According to the teaching of the Buddha, in true love there is no place for pride.

When you are suffering like this, you must go to the person you love and ask for his or her help. That is true love. Do not let pride keep you apart. You must overcome your pride. You must always go to him or her. That is what this mantra is for. Practice for yourself first, to bring about oneness of your body and mind before going to the other person to say the fourth mantra: “Dear one, I am suffering; please help.” This is very simple but very hard to do.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly soul-salving Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm with Seneca on overcoming fear and Audre Lorde on turning fear into fire, then revisit the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on transformation through difficult times.

BP

American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

A painted dance in praise of the best we can do.

American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

In the final years of a long life animated by optimism as a catalyst of democracy and the spring of action toward justice, Walt Whitman’s aged baritone unspools from the only surviving recording of his voice to read a verse from one of his last poems, envisioning America as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons, all, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old, strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.”

The paradox of progress is that the more of it we make, the higher the stakes and standards of justice become, and the more we slip into a kind of pessimistic ahistorical amnesia — we judge people and events of the past by the standards of the present and indict them as ignorant; we judge the deficiencies of the present without the long victory ledger of the past and fall into despair. Overwhelmed by all that remains to be done — which must be every epoch’s focus but not its paralysis — we forget all that has been done, and done at the cost of tremendous toil by generations who fought for the incremental triumphs with the totality of their lives. In the century and a half since Whitman’s day, much of what was to him a brave imagining — women’s suffrage, abolition, the birth of a global ecological conscience, the discovery of new worlds and new galaxies — has become a reality, unlatching larger vistas of possibility far beyond the horizon of even his most optimistic vision.

To raft an awareness of this amid the tragic tide of cynicism engulfing our culture is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance, for as Maya Angelou astutely observed, “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

Numberless half-remembered revolutions after Whitman, after Angelou, David Byrne — a polymathic poet laureate of optimism for our own era — picks up the baton of anticynical humanism in his Broadway musical turned HBO film turned illustrated book American Utopia (public library), featuring the art his longtime friend Maira Kalman originally painted for the Broadway curtain, paired with lyric lines in a series of minimalist visual poems, designed and edited by Maira’s son and frequent collaborator Alex Kalman.

What makes her work such a burst of delight is that whatever extant reality she brings her brush to — be it the alphabet or the weather or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — the elements that have beckoned to her imagination from the immensity of the work become a meta-poem exuding a quiet philosophy of being.

So it is with American Utopia — spare lines from Byrne’s lyrics, spare gestural utterances from the body language of the choreography, spare micro-expressions on the faces of the cast come abloom as painted vignettes, tender and expressive, dancing with their own aliveness.

What emerges is not a recreation of the musical world in book form but a luminous satellite of that world, intimate yet separate, removed by a degree of artistic abstraction yet reflecting the radiance of the same guiding star.

Pair American Utopia with Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love, then revisit David Byrne’s buoyant hymn to optimism and his pencil diagrams of the human condition.

Artwork courtesy of Maira Kalman / Bloomsbury. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

Alain de Botton on Emotional Generosity and the Difficult, Largehearted Art of Charity of Interpretation

How to master a singular flavor of kindness we rarely afford others but always demand for ourselves.

Alain de Botton on Emotional Generosity and the Difficult, Largehearted Art of Charity of Interpretation

Goethe, who lived and died by the indivisibility of art and life, insisted that we ought to treat the works of others, however imperfect, the way we treat their actions — with “a loving sympathy.” And yet one of the most damning paradoxes of our condition is that, again and again, we withhold from others the loving sympathy and empathic understanding we demand for ourselves. When we lose the reins of our own character, when we lash out or sulk or act from a small dark place, we hasten to rationalize our actions as situational — we were too tired, too triggered, too threadbare with stress or vulnerability or loss. When others lose the reins of their character, we hasten to indict their misdeeds as constitutional, representative of a self rather than of a state.

Two centuries after Goethe — epochs that saw the birth of psychology as a systematic effort to do for our emotional fragility what philosophy has endeavored to do for our unwisdom and astronomy for our cosmic solipsism — the poetic astronomer of self-awareness Alain de Botton offers a calibration for the bifocal instrument of our sympathy in The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the wonderful handbook of self-refinement that gave us De Botton on existential maturity and what emotional intelligence really means.

Alain De Botton
Alain de Botton

In a section devoted to the most difficult and most rewarding form of generosity there is — what he calls “charity of interpretation” — De Botton writes:

At its most basic, charity means offering someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. This is normally and logically understood to mean something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money. But, in its widest sense, charity stretches far beyond financial donations. Charity involves offering someone something that they may not entirely deserve and that it is a long way beyond the call of duty for us to provide: sympathy.

Like Kepler, who composed the world’s first true work of science fiction as a clever invitation for people to examine their own blind spots through the safe lens of observing the flagrant blind spots of imaginary others, De Botton invites such charity of interpretation toward others by reminding us how deeply it gladdens when we receive it ourselves. Defining this difficult, triumphal generosity of spirit as “an uncommonly generous assessment of our idiocy, weakness, eccentricity, or deceit,” he paints a portrait of what it looks like in others when they confer it upon the fragile and foibled parts of our own nature:

Even when they do not know any of the details, generous onlookers must make a stab at picturing the overall structure of what might have happened to the wretched being before them. They must guess that there will be sorrow and regret beneath the furious rantings, or a sense of intolerable vulnerability behind the pomposity and snobbishness. They must intimate that early trauma and let-down must have formed the backdrop to later transgressions. They will remember that the person before them was once a baby too.

The charitable interpreter holds on also to the idea that sweetness must remain beneath the surface, along with the possibility of remorse and growth.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of condescension / Means we all sink.” — De Botton adds:

Such is our proclivity for error and our vulnerability to reversals of fortune, we are all on the verge of needing someone to come to our imaginative aid. And therefore, if for no other reason, we have a duty to remain constant providers of generous interpretations of the lives of others. We must be kind in the sense not only of being touched by the remote material suffering of strangers, but also of being ready to do more than condemn and hate the sinful around us, hopeful that we too may be accorded a tolerable degree of sympathy in our forthcoming hour of failure and shame.

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly resaning School of Life — which was among the finest books of its year — with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, then revisit De Botton on what makes a good communicator, why our partners drive us mad, the psychological paradox of sulking, and his lovely letter to children about reading as a portal to self-understanding.

BP

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