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The Price of Modernity and the Loss of Love

You have probably noticed the rash of recent biographies about the founding fathers.  Why do we have this thirst for insight into the lives of our heroic American forefathers?  We seem to long for a sense of greatness in ourselves and our leaders that seems missing in our complex modern lives.

A forthcoming biography focusing on Abraham Lincoln is perhaps particularly pertinent to our lives.  Lincoln is perhaps the first president of the modern era: President during a time when the emerging technology of war could kill thousands in a single battle.  Lincoln also brought with him into the office of President a particularly modern foible.  Lincoln suffered from depression.

In 1835, Lincoln was living in New Salem, Illinois.  He was 26 years old and had become friendly with Ann Rutledge, a bright, pretty young woman with golden hair and large blue eyes.  In August of 1835, she became sick and Lincoln was particularly distressed in visiting her during her illness and became even more so after she died.

The villagers in New Salem became concerned about Lincoln’s mental health.  A farmer in the area, Henry McHenry, recalled, “after that Event, he seemed quite changed, he seemed Retired, and loved Solitude, he seemed wrapped in profound thoughtindifferent, to transpiring Events, had but Little to say, but would take his gun and wander off in the woods by him self, away from the association of even those he most esteemed, this gloom seemed to deepen for some time, so as to give anxiety to his friends in regard to his Mind.”

A schoolteacher friend of his, Mentor Graham, recalled that Lincoln “told Me that he felt like Committing Suicide often.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk, in his new book about Lincoln,* concludes that Lincoln was suffering from clinical depression, that certainly his condition matched that of clinical depression described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders.  In those days, it was widely accepted among his friends that Lincoln suffered from what was then called melancholia.

Particularly informative for us as lawyers is that both of Lincoln’s first two major depressive episodes came after long periods of intense work when an interpersonal crisis occurred.  In 1835, he had been studying law intensely.  In the winter of 1840, he had been working feverishly to keep the debt-ridden state of Illinois from collapsing, and also his political career.  At the same time, it seemed that he was inextricably bound to a woman that he did not love, Mary Todd, and that his best friend, Joshua Speed, was going to end up marrying Matilda Edwards, the woman that Lincoln was probably in love with.  In January of 1841, his mental health was so impaired that he submitted himself to the care of a physician, Dr. Anson Henry.  On January 23rd, Lincoln wrote to his law partner in Washington, “I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.  Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not.  To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

This fair, brutally honest letter suggests that Lincoln’s depression was causing him to face the existential question which Albert Camus posed for himself and modernity – whether he should live and what was life worth living for?

What is important for us about Lincoln’s life in terms of mental health is that after deciding to live, he brought an even deeper meaning into his life despite of and because of his depression.  Lincoln was evidently able to make that shift from the feeling of impotence and helplessness that depression brings to focusing on how he could cope with the reality of his condition.

In the 1850s, America’s old conflict over slavery took on a new intensity when Senator Stephen A. Douglas engineered the repeal of the Missouri compromise, which had prohibited extension of slavery in the Northwest.  In 1854, Lincoln threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery and the same qualities that he had used to cope with his depression became the way in which he was able to address the nation’s struggle.  In essence, the suffering that he had endured lent him clarity and conviction and creative skills in facing a heated political issue.  Shenk finds three particular qualities important.

The first is clarity.  Modern research on “depressive realism” confirms the hunch of the Romantic poets that the process of being forced within by depression can also provide insight.  Lincoln clearly saw the possible grave impact to the nation of the spread of slavery.  When he stood up to debate Douglas, his melancholy was palpable and his listeners sensed the depth of feeling in what Lincoln said.

Just as Lincoln did not let his depression prevent his moral crusade against slavery, Lincoln did not let his two losing bids for the U. S. Senate in the 1850s deter him from articulating a vision of a free society.

The second is creativity.  Many studies show the high correlation between  creative artists and mood disorders.  Lincoln’s art was his oratory.  On February 27, 1860 Lincoln spoke to a crowd at Cooper Union in New York.  The next day the New York Tribune said: “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”

The third is humility.  Lincoln responded to his suffering, and to both the defeats and victories it brought him, with humility.  Lincoln did not have an orthodox Christian faith, but he did have faith in a divine providence.  During the huge burden of his work as President during the Civil Ward, he repeatedly called himself an “instrument” of a greater power.  At the same time, Lincoln, in making difficult decisions on troop movements, personnel and executive departments never ducked responsibility.  He had the capacity to see the facts clearly, and, when uncertain, the patience to stay in that place of tension with decisions he alone had to make.  Lincoln seemed to have captured and practiced the essence of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer – the courage to do what he had to do, the serenity to accept what he could not effect and the wisdom to know the difference.

Shenk concludes that Lincoln’s greatness was not a triumph over his personal suffering from depression.  Rather, Lincoln used the lessons of how he had to cope with depression to allow himself to do great things through the lens of his depression.

While pharmacological treatment of depression can be a God-send, Lincoln gives a reality lesson.  As lawyers who work intensely, we, like him, may face depression.  While our impulse is to react against it, and often simply to treat it with medication, Lincoln challenges us that we may also be able to learn from it.

Lincoln’s experience informs the central challenges we face – how to be happy in our modern world.  A lot has been written about the fact that in pre-industrial society, there was little evidence of depression and certain other mental health disorders.  While there was the use of alcohol and other drugs throughout recorded history, in pre-industrial societies, these uses were limited by social and religious rituals.  The use of drugs was not about pleasure or escape, but about exploring the nature of the human psyche and its relationship to the supernatural.

Most of the mental health and addiction problems that we face today are much more severe than were experienced in pre-industrial society.  It seems that there is something about modern life that makes one’s internal sense of estrangement, or alienation, more powerful.

Of course, mankind has always wrestled with the fundamental question of “Who am I?” and the underlying corollary question of, “How am I connected to others and the world around me?”  But, somehow our modern life has made these questions even more compelling.  It is as if we modern day Adams and Eves didn’t just fall out of the Garden of Eden into a primitive but pristine landscape, rather we landed in a glaring often jarring environment where many, if not most, of the commodities of life are marketed through strategies, playing on man’s estrangement.  The urban and suburban environments that most of us live in simply do not offer the serenity and emotional comfort that we find when we get away to un-crowded places in the mountains or at the seashore.

In many parts of the world, the cultural reaction to modernity has been to retreat to a reactionary, extreme fundamentalism.  It is easy to understand why this happens.  A closed system offers a mental refuge against the uncertainty and escapes into hedonism seen in modern cultures.  While we can see the importance of having a strong container for a child that is growing up and acting out, good parents are going to be there to relax that container as the child matures.  The difficulty with the extreme fundamentalist reaction is that its rigidity ends up destroying what it has sought to preserve, because it does not allow for a healthy developmental process.  Ultimately, perpetuation of a fundamentalist reaction becomes conditioned on a need for people to feel estranged.

We look at these cultural responses to modern life – on the one hand, Western escapism and hedonism, and on the other hand, extremist, theocratic Islamic reactions, and immediately understand how both fail to address the underlying issue of modern man’s feeling of estrangement.

This cultural overview helps illuminate what often happens in the personal situation.  Much of psychological research and thinking over the past 70 years has been devoted to understanding the contours of pathology cause by self alienation.  Clinicians are good at understanding how to identify and to label these reactions.  Freud, who was the father of modern psychology, focused on instinctual disorders.  Freud’s belief was that it was our basic instinctual drives that had gone awry and which caused emotional problems.  What we see today, more often, is that it is our instinctual processes that are hijacked, as ways to avoid wrestling with our issues of estrangement.  Addictions to substances and processes flourish as one of the dominant pathologies in our culture.  The location of these disorders is in the old reptilian brain.  Our basic instinctual needs to have food, to reproduce and to feel pleasure get distorted in such a way that they become significant illnesses.  Along with this, our brain’s natural neuro-chemicals are affected by alcohol and other drugs in such a way to promote a feeling of escaping from feeling alienation.  Over time, this way of coping with alienation results in a serious addiction process.

Modernity has brought us an era of family separations and of families where both parents work.  Even the best of modern upbringings can leave a child with the feeling that somehow they were abandoned or did not receive the love and attention they needed.  One of the most common psychological issues aggravating the existential issue of alienation that every person faces is the search for gratification of unfulfilled needs from the past.  This phenomenon seems to have been almost completely absent in pre-industrial society.  It is largely missing in the East which has a much stronger tradition of family and community.  The fantasy of being able to fill unfulfilled needs from childhood can lead to a relentless search where happiness always seems unreachable.

Narcissism is a product of the development of the family in our modern times where the child has difficulty finding him or herself.  There has been much psychological research in this area.  Basically, the theory is that when the child is left with feeling either alternatively intruded upon or ignored by his parents, the child constructs a false self in order to deal with the absences or over-intrusiveness.  Later in life, the person is still struggling against the false self trying to find the real self.  The person’s sense of emptiness and alienation is heightened by the feelings of being estranged from who he or she really is.  The struggle then to find the real self becomes a very self-centered, narcissistic process.  The struggle is against something that seems very real, but in essence, is illusory since it is simply a product of childhood adaptations which have continued to function after the child is grown.

Anxiety and the kind of depression Lincoln had are other ways the psyche will try to cope with the increased sense of alienation our modern life has given us.  The culture itself is a part of the problem since, whether it is marketing beer, depression medication, Viagra or new cars, all are presented as ways to solve one’s feelings of alienation.  Of course, when they don’t, the result is the sense of alienation is compounded.

While psychological research has done a good job of defining the contours of the various disorders that are responsive to our modern condition, it has been much less successful in defining therapies which produce workable, positive remedies.  Of the many competing psychological theories which might be applied to the problem of estrangement, none show any greater utility over the others.  The one factor that seems to be a statistically valid indicator of greater success is the relationship between the therapist and client.  In other words, there is something about the nature of the interaction between two human beings which helps cure the feeling of alienation that underlies so much of mental illness and addiction.  This tells us something very important.  And, that is, that part of any solution to these issues is finding a context in which a person can feel accepted, appreciated, and loved – that is, not estranged and alienated.

While individual disorders may need specific kinds of attention, such as compulsive eating, sexual or chemical addiction, the overall context in which healing can occur needs to be one of good old-fashioned love.  What Lincoln’s life tells us is that in an environment of love and support like he had in New Salem, even a lifelong depression can be something that brings new meaning and benefits to life.

Fortunately, in our culture, there are many positive ways that a supportive environment is available.  We can spend extra time cultivating those personal relationships which are most important to us.  These may be with family members or they may not.  Unfortunately, for many of us, some of our family relationships carry an awful lot of toxic material and are not the best place for us to feel loved and accepted.  Another place it’s possible to create this kind of environment is by participating in service organizations where we work together with others and get to know each other well enough to feel appreciated at the same time we extend appreciation to others.  Our churches and religious institutions are very important vehicles for providing a community sense of caring that is so vital to us as humans.

For most of us, the great intellectual pursuit of the meaning of life is not as important as taking action to place ourselves in groups of people where we can find support and caring and where our own lives can give meaning to others.  In fact, often the great intellectual pursuit of the meaning of life is a barrier to discovering that meaning which is something we learn to experience, moment by moment, rather than to pursue.

What Lincoln teaches us is that however modern psychology might define our wounds, and whatever our travails are, they offer us an opportunity to gain something.  We need to have Lincoln’s tools of clarity, creativity and humility.  If we have these, the only condition precedent to being able to rise to such a challenge is that we find an environment where we can hope and trust, where we can learn to give and receive what is impossible for an alienated person – that produces the qualities Lincoln had of wisdom and compassion – the gifts that come with experiencing giving and receiving love.

– by Don Carroll

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addiction; FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems. 

*Lincoln‘s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness excerpted in the October, 2005 Atlantic.

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