July 31, 2007

Lincoln, suicide, and the War in Iraq

Posted in Politics, War on Terror at 10:19 pm by Caleb Winn

I’ve been reading through a truly amazing book called Lincoln’s Melancholy, which considers our 16th President’s lifelong struggle with depression, and the impact that it had on his life and work.

The book is interesting for its portrait of Lincoln as the victim of chronic depression. It reveals that Lincoln spoke often of committing suicide, and considered the subject seriously enough that he refused to carry a pocketknife out of fear that he might end his life in a moment of exceptionally dark despair. His friends put him on “suicide watch” on several occasions, worried that he might take his own life. He even appears to have written poetry about suicide, in which his first-person narrator acknowledges the terror of hell, but concludes that an eternity of damnation will only help him forget that he is damned while yet living, and calls his knife “my last — my only friend!” as it draws him from life to death.

The author points out that Lincoln’s explicit acknowledgment of Hell makes this a peculiar statement for a potential suicide. A true suicide doesn’t really give serious consideration to where he or she will go after death. Indeed, the point of suicidal depression isn’t to go to anywhere. The point is simply to go away. Quoting psychologist Edwin Shneidman, the author writes, “The single most dangerous word in all of suicidology is the four-letter word only,” as in “only one thing to do … only one way to get away from it … jump off something good and high.” There is no complicated, rational weighing of costs vs. benefits. The suicide is overwhelmed with a myopic understanding of his or her own misery, and unable to consider alternatives. The pessimism of melancholy leads to the despair of depression, and “cognitive restriction” renders the sufferer incapable of complex rational thought about how to improve his or her position.

This concept, especially the idea of “cognitive restriction,” is incredibly useful for understand Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and perhaps in framing the debate over the War in Iraq.

Lincoln was President during the darkest time in American history. No period before or since presented such an enormous challenge, and no enemy before or since posed such a great threat to the future of the American experiment. If ever there was cause for a President to despair, it was the near-loss of the Civil War. And yet Lincoln, fully cognizant of the challenges ahead, pressed on. In many ways, his pessimistic, melancholy attitude served him well. He possessed a level of “depressive realism” that enabled him to recognize the real threats facing the Union, and this awareness enabled him to confront those threats head-on instead of hiding behind a veil of deluded optimism. Although he understood the gravity of his task, and although this understanding was indescribably discouraging at times, Lincoln did not experience “cognitive restriction”. He weighed options carefully and deliberately, neither overcome by despair nor blinded by foolish hope, and a led a nation forward through her darkest hour.

This stands in stark contrast to the leading voices in the debate over the War in Iraq. Anti-war Democrats are unwilling or unable to rationally consider alternatives to the status quo. The rhetoric of the anti-war movement is predominately depressive and reactionary, focusing on how miserable the current predicament is, but offering few positive steps to alleviate our national suffering, or the suffering of the people of Iraq. The liberal consensus calls for withdrawal, but does not consider the implications or consequences of such a retreat. Their thinking on the issue is binary: the choice is to remain, or to leave. To remain is an unacceptably bad fate, and so the only alternative is to pull out now. There is no real consideration of the likely outcome of such a withdrawal. There is no discussion about whether post-occupation Iraq will be better than the status quo. The anti-war movement is not moving forward towards any particular goal — certainly not toward peace. They merely want to move away from the insufferable state in which we live, and the only way to do that is by giving up. Psychologically speaking, this reeks of the “cognitive restriction” of a suicide, whose thoughts are so dominated by an obsessive awareness of misery that escape becomes the only possible choice, even if the so-called escape leaves the person worse off than ever before.

Surely there must be a middle ground between the Administration’s blind, unwavering optimism, and the Democratic Party’s cognitive paralysis. Surely there must be a path that takes us between ignorant bliss and depressive suicide. Where are the leaders who can understand our challenges, but not be incapacitated by despair? Where are the leaders who can recognize the difficulties that lie ahead, and summon the fortitude to press on and overcome them? Where is our Abraham Lincoln?

And would we recognize him if we saw him?


July 30, 2007

A poem.

Posted in Personal, Poetry at 11:24 pm by Caleb Winn

The Folly Of Hope.

The object of my heart’s desire
Sits sweetly smiling in plain view
But though pursued with burning fire
Yet she remains unwon, unwooed

Although she rests so very near
We’re separated by deep schism
For betwixt us stands a mirror
My own reflection, damned prison.

I strain against the bars of fate
I break my heart within its grasp
And all my efforts come too late
But still within my hands I clasp

July 25, 2007


Posted in Personal at 12:04 am by Caleb Winn

I just returned from my first ever trip to Washington D.C., the highlight of which was certainly the Lincoln Memorial. More than any other monument, I had anticipated seeing President Lincoln. And I was not disappointed.

As I ascended the steps and walked into the Memorial, I was first struck by the sheer size of the President. In many ways, he cuts a menacing figure in that hall of stone. And yet his image inspires, rather than terrifies. Though Lincoln is imposing, one gets the impression that he does not seek to impose on his visitors. Rather, he stares forward, guarding his people from that which would divide and destroy them, always keeping watch to ensure that the government by the people, of the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. As I looked into his protecting gaze, I saw the words written on the wall above him:

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.

Indeed, may Lincoln’s memory live in our hearts. And may we honor his memory with our lives. As I read these words, my eyes grew wet with tears.

As I turned to the left, I discovered, etched into the vast wall of the sanctuary, the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As I read along with that great speech, I was overwhelmed by the importance of his words. These words are more than stirring rhetoric. These words are Lincoln’s solemn vow to press on to victory, and his challenge to us to continue on after he has perished. Lincoln realized that it would be foolish to presume that any speech could truly commemorate the lives lost in service to their country. Instead, Lincoln commemorated their sacrifice by offering one of his own, dedicating his own life and service so that their sacrifices were not for naught. It was as if the words of Lincoln reached out across centuries and called out to all who would listen:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There is nothing more I can possibly add to those words. As I read them, I felt tears run down my cheeks, each one a silent promise to honor the noble dead, and to do what I can to preserve and protect that which they fought to secure.

On the opposite wall, the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are on display. In it, he speaks of the terrible time of war, and the necessity of persevering to victory for a just cause. And he acknowledges that it can be difficult, at times, to discern God’s will in light of such terrible calamities. Where is God when Christian brother fights against Christian brother, and millions of men, women, and children remain enslaved? And how can we serve Him faithfully, pursuing what is Right without hating those who do Wrong? And there I read these words:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

I can attempt to draw any number of correlations to true and important ideas. I think that Narnia, The Faerie Qvueene, and Harry Potter could all help us to understand the full weight of these words. But high fantasy fails me, and I am left with no more powerful image than the one I saw as I read these words: An elderly black man stood staring at the wall, and with tears in his eyes and joy in his voice, read the speech aloud into his cell phone, sharing the words of that Great Man with somebody who could not be there to see them in person. What more powerful testament to the enduring legacy of Abraham Lincoln than this man’s joy, his tears, and his laughter! As I read those words, and saw their effects played out on this man’s enraptured face, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, and could not hold back my tears.

The 45 minutes that I spent in that hall, reading, weeping, and praying, were some of the most powerful of my life. Lincoln was only one man, weighed down by depression throughout his life, but he refused to stand by and let history take its course. His enduring legacy of freedom is a blessing to all who live in the world that he helped create, and a challenge to each of us to steward his work, to further the cause of freedom and unity, and to persevere as God gives us grace to see what is right.

July 24, 2007

What does it mean To Make Amends?

Posted in Culture, Personal, The Church at 9:08 am by Caleb Winn

In season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character Angel is brought back from Hell by some mystical power. Upon his return, he finds himself haunted by images of those whom he has wronged.

You see, Angel is a vampire — but one with a soul. For hundreds of years, Angelus delighted in torturing and killing innocents, taking sadistic pleasure in driving helpless men, women, and children, out of their minds.

As a demon, Angelus has no conscience. But when he is reensouled, Angel begins to feel remorse beyond anything a mortal man could experience or imagine, for his sins were far greater than any that a mortal man could commit, and they stretched across centuries. This awareness of his sins drives him to despair.

And as his despair reaches its highest point, the faces and voices of Angelus’ victims call out from centuries past an accuse him of his crimes. These hallicunations are manifestations of “The First,” who is evil itself, and whose tools are deception and despair. And each of these hallicunations tells Angel the same thing: Kill Buffy, and you will be free.

Angel cannot bring himself to kill Buffy. He wants to escape the guilt for his evil deeds, and not to perpetuate them. Nevertheless, he cannot live with himself, in the agony of his torment. Convinced that he is irredeemably evil, and that the world would be better off without him, Angel climbs to the top of a hill overlooking Sunnydale, and waits for the sun to bring him deliverance from his guilt. As Buffy begs him, pleads him to come inside and spare his life, Angel looks at her and tells her what she doesn’t understand about depravity: It’s not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy. It’s the man.

And as he waits for the sun that will bring death to his vampire frame, Angel is surprised to discover flakes of snow falling from the sky. After all, Sunnydale had been experiencing record heat all week. And yet here was snow. And in a flash of realization, Angel understood that the sun would not shine on that Christmas morning, for nature itself would not let him die. Giving up in despair was a coward’s way out, and Angel was meant for more than that. He had more to live for. He must make amends.

This is a powerful image of redemption, and has consistently brought me back to Grace when I have wandered away. It is so easy for me to feel, like Angel, as if my sin overshadows grace. It’s easy to want to give up in despair. But that is the coward’s way out. Grace tells me that redemption is possible, and calls me To Make Amends.

This doesn’t mean that we can earn Grace, or in some way make ourselves worthy of redemption. Rather, our lives out to be lived responsively to Grace. In light of the fact that we are new creations, in light of the fact wehave been brought forth into newness of life, we are called to walk in righteousness. It’s not about earning redemption. It is about living out our redemption.

This is a difficult thing for me to remember, but it is also desperately important. This blog is an attempt for me to live out my redemption, at least intellectually, by exploring new ideas and trying to understand God’s world in light of His perfect Grace. I hope that it blesses you.