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Alfred Russel Wallace’s Prophetic Prescription for Course-Correcting Away from Ecological Catastrophe and Toward Widespread Human Happiness

“The final and absolute test of good government is the well-being and contentment of the people — not the extent of empire or the abundance of the revenue and the trade.”

Alfred Russel Wallace’s Prophetic Prescription for Course-Correcting Away from Ecological Catastrophe and Toward Widespread Human Happiness

The polymathic British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (January 8, 1823‐November 7, 1913) is best known as the man evolution left behind. While Wallace arrived independently at the theory of natural selection and while the paper about it he jointly published with Darwin in 1858 fomented the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, it was Darwin — who had kept his controversial ideas under wraps for years, until Wallace gave him the courage to go public — that took the laurels of evolutionary theory. But Wallace holds a different, long overlooked distinction, the cultural impact of which might well shape the evolution of this planet’s living future more profoundly than the evolutionary history of its past.

Darwin became the face of evolutionary theory because, with his intensely focused autism-spectrum mind and its acute attention to this particular branch of knowledge, his science was just stronger. Russell, unlike Darwin, had a mind too fractal with ideas to stay within the bounds of any one discipline and a humanistic spirit too concerned with the social side of life to remain confined purely to science. And so he became one of the first scientists to seriously consider the ecological footprint of our species and caution against the environmental assault of human industry.

Alfred Russel Wallace circa 1895

Writing not long after Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in an obscure German scientific book and long before Rachel Carson made it a household word with the unexpected bestseller that awoke the modern ecological conscience, Wallace drew an unambiguous causal link between the economic and political decisions by which our society governs itself and the ecological consequences for our species, for all species, and for the planet itself — and then he considered what it would take for us to divert the catastrophic path we had just set out on then, and on which we still remain.

In the final years of the nineteenth century, with Darwin long dead and the Earth newly laced with train tracks and telephone cables, fogged with factory fumes, and cratered with oil wells, Wallace published an extraordinary 426-page reflection on the promise and peril of what we so blindly call progress, titled The Wonderful Century (public domain | public library) — a far-seeing cautionary yet ultimately optimistic vision for how to course-correct our civilization, so that the rise of capitalism as a global economic system based on exploitation and extraction would not corral our species into its own misery and threaten the survival of all species on an irreplaceable planet that is a miracle and not a resource.

Art from the 19th-century French science textbook Les phénomènes de la physique. Wellcome Collection. Available as a print and as a face mask benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Wallace, having lived far past his era’s life expectancy and watched generations claw at the rungs of so-called progress, writes:

One of the most prominent features of our century has been the enormous and continuous growth of wealth, without any corresponding increase in the well-being of the whole people; while there is ample evidence to show that the number of the very poor — of those existing with a minimum of the bare necessaries of life — has enormously increased, and many indications that they constitute a larger proportion of the whole population than… in any earlier period of our history.

Born in an era when there were only a handful of millionaires in the world, he adds:

This increase of individual wealth is most clearly shown by the rise and continuous increase of millionaires, who, by various modes, have succeeded in possessing themselves of vast amounts of riches created by others, thus necessarily impoverishing those who did create it.

[…]

The development of steam navigation, of railroads and telegraphs, of mechanical and chemical science, and the growth of the population, while enormously increasing productive power and the amount of material products — that is, of real wealth — at least ten times faster than the growth of the population, has given that enormous increase almost wholly to one class, comprising the landlords and capitalists, leaving the actual producers of it — the industrial workers and inventors — little, if any, better off than before.

Wallace observes that of the thousands of millionaires already in existence, most are in America — “a country having a much larger amount of natural wealth and of human labor to draw upon.” (For a sobering calibration of how this asymmetry has swelled, a century after Wallace’s death there were already tens of millions of millionaires in the world, so many of them in the United States as to dwarf the rest into a statistical irrelevance.) He observes, too, that this leap in income inequality has been paralleled by a doubling of mental illness and suicide in the same time frame — an increase in “the total mass of misery and want” that has far outpaced population growth.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

More than half a century before Rachel Carson admonished that those atop the capitalist pyramid of extraction and exploitation maintained their position of power by feeding the rest of us “little tranquilizing pills of half truth” to conceal the fundamental malady ailing our civilization, Wallace writes:

This is exactly what we have been doing during the whole century, — applying small plasters to each social ulcer as it became revealed to us — petty palliatives for chronic evils. But ever as one symptom has been got rid of new diseases have appeared, or the old have burst out elsewhere with increased virulence; and
it will certainly be considered one of the most terrible and inexplicable failures of the nineteenth century that, up to its very close, neither legislators nor politicians of either of the great parties that alternately ruled the nation would acknowledge that there could be anything really wrong while wealth increased as it was increasing.

Epochs before humanity became ready to take the reins of its own catastrophic extractionism with actionable ecological resolutions like the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal, Wallace weighs “the injury done to posterity” — that is, to us — and portends the inevitable end of the greedy industrialism just beginning, in the kiln of which our own modern lives were set into shape:

The struggle for wealth, and its deplorable results [in the human sphere] have been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable. Not only have forest-growths of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth’s surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equalled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Fate of Fausto — a lovely painted fable about the absurdity of greed

At the dawn of the petroleum craze that would soon give rise to Big Oil and the world’s first corporate monopolies, whose magnates would swell the score of millionaires and swell our species’ carbon footprint to a size capable of stomping out all of life on this rocky world, Wallace adds:

In America, and some other countries, an equally wasteful and needless expenditure of petroleum oils and natural gas is going on, resulting in great accumulations of private wealth, but not sensibly ameliorating the condition of the people at large.

[…]

This rush for wealth has led to deterioration of land and of natural beauty, by covering up the surface with refuse heaps, by flooding rich lowlands with the barren mud produced by hydraulic mining; and by the great demand for animal food by the mining populations leading to the destruction of natural pastures.

In a passage that stuns with its tragic timelessness, bellowing down the hallway of time an indictment not only of his century but of every century that has followed it, Wallace writes:

The final and absolute test of good government is the well-being and contentment of the people — not the extent of empire or the abundance of the revenue and the trade.

Wallace questions why, in an era marked by “altogether unprecedented progress in knowledge of the universe and of its complex forces,” marked also by “the application of that knowledge to an infinite variety of purposes,” our knowledge alone has not improved our social harmony and individual wellbeing at a commensurate rate. (A generation before Bertrand Russell — easily the most lucid and luminous mind of his time — located the source of this disconnect in the astute distinction between “power-knowledge” and “love-knowledge,” Wallace writes:

The bounds of human knowledge have been so far extended that new vistas have opened to us in directions where it had been thought that we could never penetrate, and the more we learn the more we seem capable of learning in the ever-widening expanse of the universe… But the more we realize the vast possibilities of human welfare which science has given us, the more we must recognize our total failure to make any adequate use of them. With ample power to supply to the fullest extent necessaries, comforts, and even luxuries for all, and at the same time allow ample leisure for intellectual pleasures and aesthetic enjoyments, we have yet so sinfully mismanaged our social economy as to give unprecedented and injurious luxury to the few, while millions are compelled to suffer a lifelong deficiency of the barest necessaries for a healthy existence. Instead of devoting the highest powers of our greatest men to remedy these evils, we see the governments of the most advanced nations arming their people to the teeth, and expending much of their wealth and all the resources of their science, in preparation for the destruction of life, of property, and of happiness.

And then this stunning prophecy, vindicated by his future that is our history, haunting the unchanged reality of our own present:

When the brightness of future ages shall have dimmed the glamour of our material progress, the judgment of history will surely be that the ethical standard of our rulers was a deplorably low one, and that we were unworthy to possess the great and beneficent powers that science had placed in our hands.

Illustration from Le monde physique. Wellcome Collection. Available as a print and as a face mask benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

And yet Wallace — a man who devoted his long life to science precisely because he believed in its humanistic potential — ends on a note of lucid optimism, to which we are yet to live up:

Although this century has given us so many-examples of failure, it has also given us hope for the future. True humanity, the determination that the crying social evils of our time shall not continue; the certainty that they can be abolished; an unwavering faith in human nature, have never been so strong, so vigorous, so rapidly growing… The people are being educated to understand the real causes of the social evils that now injure all classes alike, and render many of the advances of science curses instead of blessings. An equal rate of such educational progress for another quarter of a century will give them at once the power and the knowledge required to initiate the needed reforms.

The flowing tide is with us. We have great poets, great writers, great thinkers, to cheer and guide us… And as this century has witnessed a material and intellectual advance wholly unprecedented in the history of human progress, so the coming century will reap the full fruition of that advance, in a moral and social upheaval of an equally new and unprecedented kind, and equally great in amount.

While the vector of Wallace’s prophecy was correct, the predicted velocity of progress falls tragically short of reality — instead, the century that followed brought the world’s first two global wars, which hijacked hard-earned scientific knowledge for inhumane ends. It now seems touching, laughable with a bittersweet laugh, that Wallace estimated it would only take another quarter century of intellectual illumination to bend the arc of progress toward universal human flourishing. But wrong as he was about the timeframe, he was unassailably right about the mechanics of change: New world orders only ever come by once new knowledge exposes the corruptions of the existing order, then moral guidance from our poets — in the largest Baldwinian sense of the word — transmutes that knowledge into the wisdom necessary for navigating the inevitable upheavals of change toward new vistas of possibility.

Art by Ryoji Arai from Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada — a lyrical Japanese illustrated meditation on change, landscape, and resilience

It might just be that the impossible always takes a little while longer than we wish to give it — and yet give we must, for as Albert Camus so astutely observed in considering what it really means to be a rebel and in solidarity with justice, “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

BP

The Biggest Bluff: Control, Chance, and How the Psychology of Poker Illuminates the Art of Thriving Through Uncertainty

“That’s the thing about life: You can do what you do but in the end, some things remain stubbornly outside your control.”

The Biggest Bluff: Control, Chance, and How the Psychology of Poker Illuminates the Art of Thriving Through Uncertainty

Decades before Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are from the fortunate platform of old age, the eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath — who never reached that fortunate platform, her life felled by the same conspiracy of chance and choice — contemplated these indelible forces in the guise of free will, writing in her journal that “there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention.”

Two generations later, Maria Konnikova entered this eternal conundrum via an improbable path half chosen and half chanced into, emerging with insights into the paradoxes of chance and control, which neither strand alone could have afforded.

Having devoted five years of doctoral work, with the creator of the famous Marshmallow Experiment as her advisor, to designing and performing psychology experiments probing how people’s perception of control in situations dictated by pure chance shapes decision-making and outcomes, she was suddenly life-thrust into a much more intimate empiricism. A period of successive losses rendered her the sole bread-winner of a family as a mysterious malady savaged her body without warning, gnawing at the fundaments of consciousness.

In the midst of this maelstrom, she became interested in the world of poker. She entered it as a psychologist on a philosophical inquiry — how often are we actually in control when we think we are, how do we navigate uncertain situations with incomplete information, and how can we ever separate the product of our own efforts from the strokes of randomness governing the universe? She emerged an unexpected master of the game, master of her own mind in an entirely new way.

The record of that experience became The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win (public library) — an inspired investigation of “the struggle for balance on the spectrum of luck and control in the lives we lead, and the decisions we make,” partway between memoir, primer on the psychology of decision-making, and playbook for life.

The Queen’s Croquet Ground
One of Salvador Dalí’s forgotten folios for a rare edition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Having previously written about the psychology of confidence through the lens of con artists and the psychology of creativity through the lens of Sherlock Holmes, she takes the same singular approach of erudition and perspicacity to the improbable test-bed of poker, lacing her elegant primers on probability and game theory with perfectly illustrative invocations of Dostoyevsky, Epictetus, Dawkins, Ephron, Kant.

More than half a century after W. I. B. Beveridge observed in the undervalued treasure The Art of Scientific Investigation that “although we cannot deliberately evoke that will-o’-the-wisp, chance, we can be on the alert for it, prepare ourselves to recognize it and profit by it when it comes,” she writes:

That’s the thing about life: You can do what you do but in the end, some things remain stubbornly outside your control. You can’t calculate for dumb bad luck… My reasons for getting into poker in the first place were to better understand that line between skill and luck, to learn what I could control and what I couldn’t, and here was a strongly-worded lesson if ever there were: you can’t bluff chance.

[…]

Real life is not just about modeling the mathematically optimal decisions. It’s about discerning the hidden, the uniquely human. It’s about realizing that no amount of formal modeling will ever be able to capture the vagaries and surprises of human nature.

Art by Moomins creator Tove Jansson from her 1966 edition of Alice in Wonderland

Drawing on the decision-making experiments she had conducted for her graduate work, she offers an empirical echo of neuroscientist Sam Harris’s insistence that our free-will experience of choice is only the illusion of choice, recounting her utterly unexpected finding in these experimental investment scenarios:

Over and over, people would overestimate the degree of control they had over events — smart people, people who excelled at many things, people who should have known better… The more they overestimated their own skill relative to luck, the less they learned from what the environment was trying to tell them, and the worse their decisions became… The illusion of control is what prevented real control over the game from emerging — and before long, the quality of people’s decisions deteriorated. They did what worked in the past, or what they had decided would work — and failed to grasp that the circumstances had shifted so that a previously successful strategy was no longer so. People failed to see what the world was telling them when that message wasn’t one they wanted to hear. They liked being the rulers of their environment. When the environment knew more than they did — well, that was no good at all. Here was the cruel truth: we humans too often think ourselves in firm control when we are really playing by the rules of chance.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

This cognitive glitch, she reasons, is not a personal failing of the individual but a fossil of the evolutionary history of our species — a species that survived by dealing with the immediate threats of particular environments, mistaking those isolated incidents for statistically representative distributions of common experience, mistaking in turn anecdote for data — a misapprehension that scars us modern humans with everything from the mental machinery of stereotypes to the crooked inner calculus of gambling. She writes:

The equation of luck and skill is, at its heart, probabilistic. And a basic shortcoming of our neural wiring is that we can’t quite grasp probabilities. Statistics are completely counterintuitive: our brains are simply not cut out, evolutionarily, to understand that inherent uncertainty. There were no numbers or calculations in our early environment — just personal experience and anecdote. We didn’t learn to deal with information presented in an abstract fashion, such as tigers are incredibly rare in this part of the country, and you have a 2 percent chance of encountering one, and an even lower chance of being attacked; we learned instead to deal with brute emotions such as last night there was a tiger here and it looked pretty damn scary.

Millennia of evolution have hardly allayed our preference for anecdote over probability — a failure to internalize mathematical rules known in psychology as the description‐experience gap, leading to what the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has memorably described as our tendency to draw our confidence in our beliefs not from the quality of the evidence but from the coherence of the story we have constructed. Numberless studies have demonstrated that the human distaste for numbers leads people to make decisions based not on the data they are shown but on the pattern-recognition of non-representative past experience we call intuition, gut feeling, hunch.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

A central paradox magnifying our ineptitude at parsing probabilities is that, in everyday life, we only tend to notice chance when the dice roll counter to our expectations — we are congenitally blind to the silent tilling work of randomness for as long as it smooths reality in our favor. But the moment life grows rough and the topography of reality becomes unfamiliar, we begin coloring chance with emotional interpretation:

Some of us imbue probability with emotion. It becomes luck: chance that has suddenly acquired a valence, positive or negative, fortuitous or unfortunate. Good or bad luck. A lucky or unlucky break. Some of us invest luck with meaning, direction, and intent. It becomes fate, karma, kismet — chance with an agenda. It was meant to be. Some even go a step further: predestination. It was always meant to be, and any sense of control or free will we may think we have is pure illusion.

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for his revolutionary 1907 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Poker presented a perfect ready-made laboratory for distilling this theoretical insight into a practical toolkit for making sounder choices. Picking up the gauntlet the titanic mathematician and computing pioneer John von Neumann threw down nearly a century ago with his revolutionary illumination of behavioral economics through game theory, she writes:

Our experiences trump everything else, but mostly, those experiences are incredibly skewed: they teach us, but they don’t teach us well. It’s why disentangling chance from skill is so difficult in everyday decisions: it’s a statistical undertaking, and one we are not normally equipped to deal with. Which brings me to poker: Used in the right way, experience can be a powerful ally in helping to understand probabilistic scenarios… The correct systematic learning process can help you unravel chance from everything else in a way that no amount of cramming numbers or studying theory ever will.

[…]

Poker, unlike quite any other game, mirrors life. It isn’t the roulette wheel of pure chance, nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance and perfect information. Like the world we inhabit, it consists of an inextricable joining of the two. Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives — chance and control. Anyone can get lucky — or unlucky — at a single hand, a single game, a single tournament. One turn and you’re on top of the world — another, you are cast out, no matter your skill, training, preparation, aptitude. In the end, though, luck is a short‐term friend or foe. Skill shines through over the longer time horizon.

The intricacies of the relationship between chance and skill, and how it shapes our experience of the world, is what The Biggest Bluff goes on to examine through the curious universe of poker: how mathematics can depersonalize chance and furnish the emotional forbearance necessary not to let small fluctuations of fortune derail us; how the fascinating psychology of locus of control (whether we attribute our life-outcomes to external factors of chance or internal endowments of skill) affects those outcomes; how to wrest from our lack of agency a rational toolkit for not just surviving but thriving in uncertainty; how to live with the awful, humbling fact that however great our skill and however much it can mitigate the work of chance, it can never be enough to entirely undo it — and how to make of that fact not a sinkhole of helplessness but a portal of possibility.

BP

If You Come to Earth: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of the Many Ways to Be Human and What Makes Our Miraculous Planet a World

A humanistic love letter to who and what we are, together on this lonesome, wild, and wondrous rock adrift around a common star.

If You Come to Earth: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of the Many Ways to Be Human and What Makes Our Miraculous Planet a World

When the Voyager sailed into the unknown to take its pioneering photographic survey of our cosmic neighborhood, Carl Sagan petitioned NASA to indulge his inspired, entirely unscientific, entirely poetic idea of turning the spacecraft’s cameras back on Earth from the outer edges of the Solar System. That grainy, transcendent photograph of our “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” became the central poetic image of his now-iconic Pale Blue Dot meditation on our cosmic place and destiny, which in turn inspired Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth” — the staggering poem that flew to space aboard the Orion spacecraft, inviting a fractured humanity to reach beyond our divisive ideologies and see ourselves afresh “on this small and drifting planet,” to face our capacities and contradictions, and finally see that “we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”

A generation later, this spirit comes ablaze anew in If You Come to Earth (public library) by Sophie Blackall — one of the most beloved picture-book makers of our time and one of those rare artists, so few in any given generation, whose work of great talent and great tenderness is bound to be cherished for epochs to come.

Told in the form of a letter from a child to an alien visitor — a particular child named Quinn, whom Sophie met while traveling around the world with UNICEF and Save the Children, and whose uncommon imagination fomented hers — the story is populated by drawings of other real-life children she met on her travels in India, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a particular class of twenty-three kids she befriended in a Brooklyn public school, and her own real-life friends and neighbors. Animated by the children’s wild, wondrous, touching ideas about the most important things to communicate about our improbable, miraculous world to a visitor from another, the book radiates the spirit of the Voyager’s Golden Record — a poetic capsule of humanism and collaborative meaning-making, the true purpose of which is not to encode for some interstellar other but to decode for us who and what we are.

Page after page, what unspools is a joyful celebration of the dazzling diversity that makes our planet a livable world: the myriad kinds of climates we live in, the myriad kinds of homes we live in, the myriad kinds of bodies we live in, the myriad kinds of creatures living alongside us, the many of them that make music — birds, whales, humans — and the many kinds of music we make.

Emerging from the story is also a quiet catalogue of the discoveries and inventions that have continually expanded the limits of our creaturely imagination, bringing us closer and closer to one another, closer and closer to the reality of this beautiful, improbable, ceaselessly astonishing planet we are fortunate to call a home: fire, music, Braille, the bicycle, air travel, medicine, the fossils the discovery of which revolutionized our understanding of evolution and deep time, the dazzling creatures of the deep sea, thought to be a lifeless world until Carl Chun’s pioneering deep-sea expedition.

Drawn into the story are curiosities that have dappled Sophie’s imagination for years, decades, a lifetime. At the tip of a promontory on a spread about the water cycle, there perches a miniature version of her Caldecott-winning lighthouse. Blazing across another spread about the unknowns of life and death is a comet inspired by a sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript.

Enchanted by the color wheel in the forgotten vintage gem The Little Golden Book of Words, Sophie set out to paint a charming new vocabulary of colors “to paint everything in the world” — names drawn from the way colors wash our lives, the way they suffuse our remembered experience and embed themselves in the crevices of our emotional landscapes. She invited people in her world — friends, neighbors, readers — to suggest color names. Being the storytelling animals we are, this seemingly simple invitation unloosed miniature memoirs of soulful, funny, tender, profoundly human moments in human lives, concentrated and consecrated by a particular color-memory. Among those shared by readers on her Instagram — which is its own lighthouse of delight — was this story by an early childhood educator named Joey Chernila:

When I was in high school, my grandmother Nettie came to live at my father’s house. It was just the three of us. Nettie, who was immensely kind and very funny, had begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s. She always worked with her hands and was a wonderful knitter. She’d knit sweaters, scarves, and espcailly caps. Her favorite color was an unearthly pink. Somewhere between the flesh of a wild salmon and an anorak put on a child who we don’t quite trust not to run away into the woods.

As her attention span grew shorter, so too did her caps. They resembled yarmulke or the caps Marvin Gaye wore in the 70s. She could finish one in a day, and would give them out to all my teenager friends who were always about the house. Soon my small high school halls were dotted with people wearing these garishly colored tiny knit caps. Did the teachers worry that the kids were being pulled into a new kind of religious sect?

In a way, we were. Nettie would pull us aside and berate us with her fiercely humanist maxims. Chief among them was this:

Just be a human being.

We got to hear that one a lot, because she didn’t know if she had told us that before and was old enough to not really care too much. Anyway… “Nettie’s Cap” is a nice name for a color.

And so Nettie’s Cap became one of “the colors you need to paint everything in the world,” perched on the edge of the page just below the burnt-orange of Mars, opposite the forlorn algae-green of Second Place, and several chromatic continents northeast of Slug Belly.

In her author’s afterword about the making of the book, Sophie reflects on our place in the cosmic scheme — a rocky planet orbiting a single star in a particular solar system, within a galaxy populated by billions of stars, within a known universe populated by billions of galaxies — and writes:

There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know if there is life elsewhere in the universe, though I find it hard to believe we are alone. But I do know this: Right this minute, we are all here together on this beautiful planet. It’s the only one we have, so we should take care of it.

Complement If You Come to Earth with the story of how the Golden Record was born and astronomer Natalie Batalha, who led NASA’s Kepler search for habitable worlds outside our solar system, reading and reflecting on Dylan Thomas’s poignant cosmic serenade to the wonder of being human, then revisit the stunning drawings of the nineteenth-century scientist who coined the word ecology to weave the wildly diverse lives of our planet into a delicate tapestry of interbeing.

Illustrations courtesy of Sophie Blackall; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

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

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