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?


1 Comment »

  1. […] think the three would have a great deal to do with each other. That is, until you read this eloquent post by Caleb: The rhetoric of the anti-war movement is predominately depressive and reactionary, […]

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