President Lincoln and Depression, a book summary

lincoln-depressionRecently, I’ve read “Lincoln’s Melancholy, How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.” It is a truly fantastic book, which I recommend to everyone who ever had depression and hopelessness in their life.

The biggest idea, I personally took away from this book, is depression is okay. It is a natural part of life that makes you wiser. Although painful and frowned upon, it should be embraced and experienced. Life is challenging, and depression prepares you for the challenges of the future.

I hope you enjoy this quick summary.

The book starts with thousands of people going wild when Abraham Lincoln is announced as a runner for the presidency. But after the crowd leaves, Lincoln looks sad and depressed, which is a normal look for him. He often cried in public, told self-pitying stories and spoke of suicide.

He had a rough childhood. Many people close to him died while he was young, including his mom. Depression ran in his family, with his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins being melancholy. In addition, his relationship with his father was difficult. Lincoln wanted to educate himself, often neglecting his farm work. People around him though he was lazy and crazy.

Being sad also meant having deep thoughtful reflection. It was a stoic outlook, often admired. Lincoln spoke about his troubles publicly, and people always were eager to help him because they truly liked him. Now, speaking of depression is taboo. Men are supposed to be tough and rise above pain. Those who suffer publicly are labeled as weak. Currently, men are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as women. Depressed people become hopeless, thinking the only way out was to end their life. Lincoln, in his late 20s, became so suicidal that his friends put him on suicide watch, removing any sharp objects he could use to hurt himself.

In January, when Lincoln was 31 years old, he wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living.” He broke up with his fiance, his political career was falling apart and he came closer to suicide than ever. The doctor he hired to help only physically and mentally drained him. He spent a lot of time alone, sorting through his ideas. Lincoln asked himself if he should die. Instead, he found a reason to live.

For some people, being happy is easy. For Lincoln, it was hard work. He went against the social norms. He came from a family of farmers and became a lawyer. Back then, the system of wages was just beginning. Sons of farmers were farmers while sons of the rich handled their families wealth. By chasing his dreams, Lincoln faced misery, failure and depression. Through his struggle, he learned to have self-control and work hard to persevere.

40,000 people kill themselves in the U.S. each year. People don’t want to admit they are suffering, let alone figure out why. Lincoln studied his depression. He rejected the idea that it’s sinful and believed depression was natural and helpful. He was a believer in fatalism, that everything happens for a reason, even depression.

In Lincoln’s early life, he was emotional, crying in public. In his middle years, he grew rational, philosophical and practiced self-control. He saw the world as hard, grim and full of misery. He simply learned to deal with depression. By his mid forties, his face and body suggested thoughtful gloom. He often went into trances of gloom that lasted for hours.

Lincoln believed no medicine could help, so he told stories and jokes for relief. He was a natural leader and knew how to get a good laugh out of people. It was the one way for him to ease his depression, socialize and have some fun. He also turned to poetry. In his late 30s and early 40s, when his dreams seemed to be slipping away, he often recited his favorite poem, “Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain, are mingled together in sunshine and rain.”

By his mid 40s, his depression led to clarity, disciple and faith in hard times. People always preach positive thinking, but pessimism is an important part of life. Depression is serious and sometimes fatal, but still an important part of the human experience. Depressed people have a better sense of reality, because the world is a tough place. Happy people may be out of touch with reality. Lincoln preached equal rights, at a time when it was unpopular to do so. He risked his career and life. His suffering allowed him to see the suffering of others.

Lincoln embraced the two sides of his personality, hope and despair, confidence and self-doubt. As a new President facing war, he was deeply troubled. His emotional side came back, speaking of his troubles in public. He told a friend his troubles were so great, that he sometimes wanted to hang himself from a tree. Once again he turned to poetry, jokes and stories. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he seen it as the fruit of his life’s work. He reached his dreams, which few men ever realize. Still, he knew his work wasn’t done. It would still take a lot of energy to see his dreams through.

Earlier in life, he decided not to commit suicide to do something great and meaningful. But in absolute exhaustion, he wondered what he would do and how he would do it. In times of trouble, he turned to the bible. He knew religion could help in difficult times, but he was not a religious man. He tried, but he simply didn’t understand it. He spoke of how the North and South believed they were doing God’s work. Both may be right, but one must be wrong. He believed both sides need to work hard and let God’s will take care of the rest. In the final weeks of his life, he seemed satisfied. His sadness was replaced by sincere joy, as if he knew his life’s work was accomplished.

The author writes that the book is structured in 3 parts: fear, engagement and transcendence. The first part, fear, is marked by long periods of withdrawal from society and asking whether or not he should live. In second period, engagement, Lincoln suffers not from his own personal experience, but from the world around him. He goes from thinking IF he should live to HOW should he live. In the third stage, transcendence, Lincoln wasn’t just living to survive but living with a purpose. He always faced fear and doubt, but returned to his purpose and worked hard. The hope is not that suffering will go away, but suffering will ready us for the challenges of the future.

I do have a longer summary in pdf. The summary contains more facts, such as:

  • Lincoln hired a doctor to cure his depression. Standard procedure at the time was to bleed the patient heavily, bring blood to the surface by using leaches, give drugs to induce vomiting, give mustard rubs, drink pepper bombs, put patients on extreme fasts lasting days, prescribe lots of exercise and other painful procedures.
  • On his way home from a vacation to a friend’s plantation, Lincoln took a steamboat where 12 slaves were being transported. They were chained together like fish on a line, taken from their homes and families, but they laughed, danced, sung and played games/jokes. He was moved by their different lives. He was a free man, relatively wealthy, just had a 5 week vacation in luxury and was still depressed.
  • Lincoln was very ambitious and often away from home. His marriage was strained. Mary Todd Lincoln had wild mood swings. Once, Mary Todd Lincoln slapped a servant girl. The servant ran home to tell her father. The girl’s father confronted Mary, who hit him with a broom. The father found Lincoln and started complaining. Lincoln put his face in his hands and said, “can’t you endure this one wrong while I have to endure it for years?” With sympathy, the man dropped the complaint.

When Lincoln was very depressed, he turned to poetry, joke and stories to help him. What helps uplift your spirits when you’re down on your luck? Please comment below.