Monday, September 5, 2011

Lincoln and Depressive Realism

The following is my fifth installment in our conversation on Nassir Ghaemi’s “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.” Chronically normal may be an indulgence we can afford when the country is running on autopilot, Ghaemi tells us in so many words. A national crisis is an entirely different proposition.

"I am now the most miserable man living," the 31-year-old Lincoln famously confessed. "Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better."

Among other things, Dr Ghaemi credits Lincoln (and Churchill and others) with depressive realism, ie the ability to size up people and events as they are, not as we wish them to be. This is much the same point raised in Joshua Shenk’s outstanding 2005 book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.” Significantly, Shenk’s main psychiatric authority was none other than Ghaemi. Likewise, Ghaemi’s analysis of Lincoln draws largely from Shenk.

Here is where Shenk is coming from:

“Other forces were also at work,” I wrote in a review on mcmanweb. “Depression turned [Lincoln] into a hard-headed realist, untainted by the pitfalls of misguided optimism. His uncanny melancholic third eye allowed him to think like a visionary. ...”

Thus, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857 led to the prospect of legalized slavery in the northern states, Lincoln found his voice. As I noted in my review:

Lincoln’s melancholia allowed him to see events with preternatural second sight. Southerners with a vested interest in the outcome stood a clear chance of having their way over largely indifferent northerners. It was the thin edge of the wedge that could put an end to free labor markets everywhere and dash the dreams of the Founding Fathers. The clock was being rewound back to the Dark Ages, and Lincoln was not confident of his ability to put a stop to it. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to speak out against the madness, even at the risk of his career.

Paradoxically, his political career took off, though true to melancholic form he saw every slight setback as a major failure.

By the time Lincoln was sworn in as President, seven southern states had bolted from the Union, with the border states threatening to join the South. In the early going, the North lost far more battles than it won, and as the terrible carnage mounted much of the population lost its resolve, leaving Lincoln with threatened rebellion on the home front.

This was not a time for cock-eyed optimists, Ghaemi lets us know. There are people still alive who recall Neville Chamberlain’s infamous declaration of “peace in our time.” Citing a landmark study by Ellen Langer and Jane Roth and a lifetime of work by Shelley Taylor, Ghaemi refers to  an unfortunate tendency in the cloyingly normal toward “an illusory sense of control, especially if things seem to go well for them.”

There is even a term for it - “positive illusions.”  As Ghaemi puts it: “We tend to see mental health as ‘being normal’ - happy, unrealistic, fulfilled. Yet Taylor showed that we sacrifice realism in the interest of happiness.”

Thus, as late as 1938 Chamberlain convinced himself that Hitler “could be relied upon to give his word.” All of England - with one notable exception - was similarly deluded. The only realistic thinker of the day was a loose cannon politician marking time in the political wilderness with his legendary “black dog.”

Lest we confuse depressive realism with the ability to wage war, Ghaemi reminds us that our greatest proponents of peace - Gandhi, Martin Luther King - also possessed this same seeming clairvoyance. In Lincoln, waging war was his last option, after every attempt at peace had failed.

A lifetime of depression. Ghaemi contends, also conferred upon Lincoln the gift of empathy (the topic of a future post), which often had to be sacrificed in pursuit of a brutally realist agenda. Thus, early in his Presidency, with the war going against the Union and his own political support rapidly eroding, Lincoln gave the cold shoulder to a black delegation, prompting Frederick Douglas to issue a scathing attack.

When the time was right, however, Lincoln seized the moment and Douglas became one of his greatest supporters. As I noted in reference to Shenk’s work:

The [Emancipation Proclamation] risked alienating the border states, but would serve to give the war a higher moral purpose. Nevertheless, Lincoln entertained no delusions about whose side God was on. Death had visited far too many northern households for him to believe that the Almighty was playing favorites. "My greatest concern is to be on God's side," he advised a colleague.

Later, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln would confess: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other ... The prayers of both could not be answered.”

The hard work was only just beginning. Lincoln proposed a policy of “malice toward none, with charity to all.”

Positive illusion or depressive realism? We’ll never know. Soon Lincoln would belong to the ages. But the dream lives on, awaiting another Lincoln to realize it.

Previous posts:

The Normal Paradox
Normal: It Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be
Reckoning with Evil 
Ghaemi's A First-Rate Madness: The Conversation Heats Up
Why We Need to be Asking the Questions


iambipolar2 said...

This was a deep article that I had to re-read a couple of times. I had a hard time picking out the importance of it as related to bipolar

John McManamy said...

Hey, Iambipolar. I'm very glad you persisted. As much as I try to make things clear, I think part of my job is to confuse and confound. This isn't always intentional, but confusion often leads to personal realizations. So thanks for sticking with me. My guess is you got stuff out of this piece that I don't even know about. :)