Today is February 12, the birthday of my favorite President. How many people out there have favorite Presidents? I'm curious about your answers, and why it is that your chosen President has captured your respect. My favorite, in case you haven't guessed from the birthday, is Abraham Lincoln, commonly regarded as one of the giants of this country for his incredible efforts to keep the country together during the Civil War. Last year at this time I had just concluded one of my all-time favorite reads, a biography of Lincoln entitled Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk's work contained both historical and psychological aspects, as Lincoln was known to have suffered from severe depressive episodes in which he was suicidal at times. Given that I am a mental health professional, the book was perfectly up my alley. Shenk gives a thought-provoking account of Lincoln's life, how depression was viewed at the time, and how he pulled himself out of suicidal spells and devoted his life to a cause. Lincoln, according to Shenk's research, did not shy away from these depressive episodes, but rather embraced the way that they impacted his functioning and allowed the sadness to transform him into a man-on-fire. This was an enlightened man who opposed slavery, blamed both the North and the South for their responsibilities in bringing it about, and fought tirelessly to restore harmony among the Union and bring freedom to a group of worthy African Americans who had never known it. We often think now about the impossibility of a United States President actually being able to impact our individual lives; Lincoln, however, was a man who could and did.
I loved this book by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It was an excellent read and I was disappointed when it concluded. The last chapter had me bawling (which isn't saying much, to be honest), particularly the last line, in which Lincoln sees Congressman Isaac Arnold approaching on the White House lawn on the evening of April 14, 1865, and says to him, "Excuse me now...I am going to the theatre. Come and see me in the morning." =( If only...
I'll conclude with this paragraph that Shenk wrote about Lincoln, which I believe aptly sums the book:
Had he devoted himself to a guru or medical practitioner...he may have found comfort in someone else's prescription for him, at the cost of a vision that he'd already come to understand---that is, his desire to do something meaningful for which he would be remembered.
Happy birthday, Mr. President Lincoln. Though he may not have been happy, he has in turn brought happiness to many, many others. May he rest in peace.