Posted by: L. E. Barnes | July 2, 2010

Die or Be Better

To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.

–Abraham Lincoln


Lincoln made the above statement in a letter to his law partner in Washington in 1841 while going through a bout of severe depression. There were times when the future 16th President of the United States came dangerously close to suicide; not only did his friends at one point keep knives and razors away from him, fearing that he would do himself harm, but Lincoln himself even decided not to carry a weapon with him out of fear that he would yield to the temptation to end his life. Therese Borchard, who writes a blog called “Beyond Blue” (posted on Beliefnet), calls Lincoln “a powerful mental health hero” in a recent blog post. Not only in spite of, but perhaps to a large extent because of his struggles with depression, Lincoln proved to be a very effective president (in fact, many consider him to have been our country’s most effective president ever) and guided the country through the tragedy of the War between the States

My struggles with generalized anxiety disorder have at times led me to the edge of despair. Somehow, probably by the grace of God, I managed to pull back from that edge each time. Yet I too have felt as Lincoln did–that I must either overcome this problem or die. It was not an option for me to continue as I was. I’ve feared for my sanity and feared that the disorder would keep me from getting anywhere in life. (And to be sure, it’s certainly hobbled me and interfered with most of my endeavors. When your mind is trapped in a constant state of tension and agitation, it’s very difficult to function effectively.) But like Borchard, I find in Lincoln both a model for hope and a model for having realistic expectations. Lincoln did not find a cure for his troubles. Coping mechanisms, yes–but no cure. And had he found a cure, he may never have accomplished what he did.

Joshua Shenk, in his excellent and insightful article “Lincoln’s Great Depression,” makes the following observations:

Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. “Biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives,” the critic Louis Menand writes, “in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a ‘breakthrough’ or arrives at a ‘turning point’ before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains.” Lincoln’s melancholy doesn’t lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

(You can read the full article here. Trust me, it’s well worth your time.)

In an earlier post I discussed my disgust with the so-called “prosperity gospel,” focusing especially on Joel Osteen. Shenk’s above remarks help show the problem with the message being touted by Osteen and other popular ministers. The prosperity gospel leaves suffering out of the equation altogether. It thus gives people an unrealistic outlook on life that not only won’t help them cope with severe chronic problems (whether physical, mental, financial, family, etc.) but can keep them from developing fortitude and wisdom from their struggles.




  1. […] Die or Be Better […]

  2. “The prosperity gospel leaves suffering out of the equation altogether.”

    But aren’t you forgetting the prosperity that was visited upon the twelve apostles because they followed Jesus?

    Oh, yeah…never mind.

    • kkollwitz,
      Yes, those early apostles were just rolling money and experiencing nothing but happiness all the time. No hardships for them, right? 😉

      Of course, the fact is the New Testament provides enough examples, especially Paul and our Lord, who suffered much for the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, it seems too many Christians today, especially here in the USA, are spoiled on the idea of Christianity without suffering and go looking for whatever “placebo” they think will give them such a life.

  3. The point that Lincoln’s great acts were an outgrowth of contending with his affliction is a really good point. I can say that my own battles with depression and anxiety over the years have given me a persistence, determination, and habit of always looking for solutions to problems that may even be “outside the box”. At times I’ve felt very alone, frustrated and angry. However, now that I see my situation as God calling me to a closer relationship with Him, coping is easier. And mega doses of the B vitamins is a help, too.

    • Barb,
      I feel for you. It’s not easy, but I’m working (and praying) for good to come out of my emotional struggles. I know everyone hates going through hardships and would love to find quick solutions. However, I’m learning the truth of adages and stories that call for patience and even point out the need for tough times so that we can grow stronger. Hard lessons to learn, to be sure, but necessary nonetheless. And B vitamins, St. John’s wort, omega-3 capsules and other supplements help as well! 🙂

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