Friday, November 04, 2005

Honest Abe's Melacholia and What It Means for Us

Arguably the greatest president the United States ever had was clinically depressed. In a new book, Lincoln's Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk argues Lincoln struggled with the disease throughout his life, but that it helped him to become the greatest American leader history remembers so reverently. Reviewing the book within the context of the depression debate -- disease, state of mind, etc. -- Field Maloney offers this anecdote from a friend of Lincoln's:
Lincoln's law partner, W.H. Herndon, once observed that Lincoln "crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham." Lincoln's "fault, if any," Herndon said, "was that he saw things less than they really were." What Herndon is describing here, Shenk says, seems similar to what psychologists term "depressive realism": the idea that depression can stem from fundamentally accurate perceptions—a worldview that, in some situations, can be an advantage.
Maloney then reviews a letter by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter where the author describes "depressive realism," a bit more poetically:
Make time, Fitzgerald wrote, "to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life." He went on:

By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare's to Abraham Lincoln's, and as far back as there are books to read—the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not "happiness and pleasure" but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.
As Maloney writes the debate here is whether depression is a well-spring of creativity for those afflicted and just possibly an insight into the way things really are or simply a disease that needs to be wiped out. As the article reports, over 1 million people ends their own lives each year. Yet the question remains, would Hemingway or Camus or Van Gogh have created the works they did without the inspiration of that dark angel, depression. I don't know.

As someone who has struggled with severe depression before -- crying in the shower for no reason is a dead giveaway -- I feel that it was a necessary transition for me into adulthood. It was also a catalyst of creativity for me as well. Most of the stories I'm working on currently initially came out of those black times.

And I know I could very well be romaticizing it, but ever since I came out of the that dark tunnel I've been pretty happy-go-lucky without losing my sense that life's a tragedy -- no one gets out alive. I will go on to see those that are closest to me die eventually until the knock raps at my door, in which I'll follow over the precipice myself. After the inevitable there will be nothing -- no afterlife...just dare I say it -- peace.

Depressing, huh? Not really. From my emergence out of midnight -- which was helped by Paxil -- I've felt alive, free, strong. Today I feel that all we have is the now and that to let it pass worrying over our mortalilty or strain for an afterlife that we can't know exists, is in the punk band Pennywise's opinion, "a tragic waste of time."

So in the end I'm saying depression may be an existential crisis we all need to experience at least once in our lives, this doesn't mean we shouldn't seek help, we should. It's a delicate balance before driving through the guardrail seems like a wise choice. But I also think we shouldn't wage pre-emptive pharmacological warfare against melancholia either. We might just kill one of the sparks that propels us toward the life lived in service of humanity and vitality like Lincoln -- however dark our hearts may stay.