I delivered this sermon at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church, where I serve as the Director of Faith Formation.
Sixteen months ago life, it seemed, was good. I was in my second year at divinity school, my time as Ministerial Intern at First Parish in Cambridge was in full swing, and I had it all figured out.
Graduate from Harvard Divinity School, do well, get a ministry job at a sweet church, do well, travel coast to coast preaching our faith’s message of radical love and justice, become known nationally as a great leader in Unitarian Universalism, turn thirty.
I’m not really kidding, sadly.
Sixteen months ago, if you had told me I would be here working at Prairie UU, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Yet here I am. And thank goodness. Well, for me. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t!
In 2005, historian Joshua Wolf Shenk published Lincoln’s Melancholy. It was, and is, a groundbreaking book not merely because it introduced to a wider audience Lincoln’s struggle with what we now call depression, but because its thesis is that Lincoln’s depression fueled his greatness. Shenk suggests a reframing of depression towards something more than an illness to get over, but something that can, if we go through it, lead us to great things.
I bring to you Shenk’s account of Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression because it resonates with me personally, and because, whether the term ‘depression’ is something near or far from your experience, Lincoln’s difficulties with self-inflicted pressure, expectation management, and search for vocation are painful realities many of us navigate.
One of the most detrimental thoughts one can have in one’s depression is some variation of this: “I have a good life. I shouldn’t feel this way.” Similarly, friends and family alike, trying to be helpful, can list off sixteen good things about your life—to which we might reply, “Yes, that’s great, but how does that help us get out of bed?”
Here, I want to make a distinction that is key to the rest of our exploration of depression. There are two phrases—the dark night of the body, and the dark night of the soul, that speak to distinct manifestations of depression. Some depressions are chemical, having little to do with circumstance. Other depressions and times of deep sadness relate more to “the dark night of the soul,” or discontent with one’s present reality. Many, of course, have elements of both. It should also be said that depression is a tough thing to talk about, and is even tougher to analyze. As with any sermon from a UU pulpit, all I can do, or would ever want to do, is speak my own truth.
To continue, Shenk argues that Lincoln’s talent and ambition, combined with genetics, teamed up to bring him down in a series of what we’d call “severe depressive episodes” in his early thirties. Shenk writes: “The very irony of Lincoln’s situation…is that the very successes that could prop him up also exerted an equally powerful force that could tear him down.” And for a time, it did tear him down. Sufferers of depression such as Lincoln wonder if their moods will ever lift.
Psychologist Lauren Slater continues the point: “These fears are fifty percent of what it is to be melancholy. If you were to be really, really depressed but knew that it would end in five days, it wouldn’t be depression.”
So it isn’t just that things are bad, but also that it feels like there’s no way out.
So it was as I waded further into my second year at Harvard Divinity. Somewhere along the way last year, I began caring more about the perception others held of me and less about actually doing good work, or of actually serving others. I cared more about seeming great and less about being great. I got involved in every committee, every school activity, and just lost my way.
I took on more and more responsibilities. Of course, the more I took on—student government, preaching opportunities, leadership positions—the less well I did any one thing. I lost all perspective.
The things (aside from economic and academic privilege in my upbringing) that got me to Harvard—healthy friendships, listening to my inner voice, and family bonds—fell by the wayside in favor of a desire to feel important and successful. I let down my friends, mistreated those closest to me, and rarely spoke with my family.
Obsessed with success, I failed.
I realized my life was crumbling, and depression took over. I fought and fought to hold on to the life I had, but to quote from The Replacements, the harder I fought, the deeper I sank.
I looked up and it was August 2013. No longer on the ministry track, no longer a Harvard student (with no Masters), and no longer in Cambridge, I’d seemingly lost everything. I had no job and little hope things would improve.
I couldn’t get past seeing myself as a failure. So many people rooted for me and helped me, yet there I was, Ivy League dropout, lying on the couch, hopeless and pathetic.
William Stafford wrote, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” It is with these words that spiritual leader Parker Palmer begins his book Let Your Life Speak. I really think half of my religious friends—or the ones who knew how down I was—recommended this book to me. We talk a lot about Parker Palmer here at Prairie.
Parker Palmer helped me understand part of why I was so down: what I had been doing at Harvard was not my life. Palmer believes that the self seeks wholeness, and that to try and live the life others think we should lead is a recipe for deep sadness and profound despair.
“True self,” he writes, “when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.”
Lincoln, in that “most miserable man living” 1841 letter, said, “I must die or be better, it appears to me.” He wondered if he would make it. Eventually, he emerged, and turned to the question of how he would live. It is this question that haunts many of us. How will we live these lives of ours?
Depression and melancholy aren’t easy things to talk about. It’s kinda hard to give a fiery, passionate sermon about deep sadness.
But I have to say, Prairie, that I do feel fired up about this topic, that I do feel passionate about these hidden struggles, that welcoming them can actually inform the work we do here.
I think there are three main lessons we can take from Lincoln’s journey. The first is, as my mom advised concerning my preaching: “Tell more jokes.” Lincoln joked all the time. It became a healthy deflection of his sadness.
The second is that Lincoln didn’t go it alone. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, there were weeks where Lincoln’s friends went everywhere with him for his own safety—from himself. His friends kept an eye on him, wrote to him, and let him know, again and again: “Abe, you are not alone.”
The third lesson—and this is where I want to spend the remainder of our time together—is that Lincoln’s depression helped him be a great president and, more importantly, a courageous and empathetic human being. I’m not saying that you need to go through real struggle to be either. But the depth of Lincoln’s sorrow afforded him extraordinary gifts of bravery and understanding.
On December 23, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln took the time to write a letter to a young woman whose father had died. The letter is filled, not with empty condolences, but with real empathy. Lincoln understood her sorrow because had been there. He wrote: “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You ca not now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”
The first time I read that letter—and our middle and high schoolers are reading it in full in religious education today—I cried. The second time I read it, I cried again. In the heart of one of our country’s ugliest hours, Lincoln took a minute to truly be with someone who felt sorrow would never leave her. That’s power. That’s leadership.
And it is this message I want to leave you with today. I’m still getting to know all of you, and you’re just getting to know me. One thing people have said some is that I have a lot of energy—that I have a lot of passion for this job. And it’s true. But there’s a reason. I have a little energy because I want, in my own imperfect ways, to help make our children and youth’s lives a little better. When I was a kid I struggled with depression. I struggled with depression as a teenager, and depression knocked me out of Harvard.
But no longer do I run away from my past. No longer do I run away from my struggles. And I want to encourage you to do the same. It isn’t depression for everyone. For some, it’s the grief of losing a love one. It’s divorce. It’s physical ailment. It’s kids who frustrate us, or parents we still battle. Sometimes it’s several things all at once.
Lincoln’s example tells us that yes, getting better matters, of course, but that in a way, we ought not think of struggle as something to get over. Instead we can carry a piece of hardship with us, so we are reminded that we can use our experience to help others. Our struggles, whatever they have been, can help us in our work.
In August 2013, as I lay there feeling miserable and hopeless on my dad’s couch in Houston, Lincoln’s words from that letter reached out and found me. “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”
Lincoln didn’t run from his pain—it fueled him. And my pain fueled me to apply for this job, drive to Denver, get it, and my pain fuels me now as I work with our young people and all of you.
So friends, I urge you: don’t run from the sadness. Don’t run from the grief. Don’t run from the frustration, the despair. These, too, are a necessary part of the battle, for the time will come when you can use them, when they will fuel your work—fuel our combined work as Unitarian Universalists.
That is why I believe so strongly in the power of religious community, of having a place and space full of people who say, “You don’t have to be better right now. I am with you.” And so don’t run from your struggle, whatever it is. Pack it up and take it with you. Lincoln’s words to Fanny in the letter reminded me of that Harriet Tubman refrain, what she would tell the slaves she helped free on the Underground Railroad: “Keep going.”
We can remind each other of that.
If life is good right now, keep going.
If stress is taking over, keep going.
If raising a child or three children or five has you overwhelmed, keep going.
If it feels like love has left you, keep going.
If love has found you, keep going.
If grief has taken you, keep going.
If joy is coursing through you, keep going. I
f you are lonely, keep going.
If you wish you could ever, just once, feel lonely, keep going.
If your body is in pain, keep going. If your body has never felt this good, keep going.
If you need someone, keep going. If you are in demand, keep going.
Keep going, friends.
Let your struggles be your fuel.
27 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Melancholy: A Sermon”
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I’ll continue the dialogue–but in English! I think the previous posts are French, but I can’t say for sure. I wish I could read them, though. Mostly, I wish I could have heard you preach this, Kenneth. I will say this…that last part sure would have “preached” in a black church. I can just about hear the preacher hooting and hollering, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief as he worked up a sweat while shouting in the sing-song cadence of a southern sermon reaching the climax, “I said, Keep Going, Church, Keep Going! Through the divorce, keep going! Ha! Through the good times, keep going! Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Can you imagine what would have happened at your UU church if you had done this? Then again, who knows–they may have loved it!!
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