“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.” -Seneca
1: “Because he has become more myth than man, most people are unaware that Abraham Lincoln battled crippling depression his entire life,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
“Known at the time as melancholy, his depression was often debilitating and profound—nearly driving him to suicide on two separate occasions,” Ryan notes. “Though he could be light and joyous, Lincoln suffered periods of intense brooding, isolation, and pain. Inside, he struggled to manage a heavy burden that often felt impossible to lift.”
Abe’s path to the presidency was “defined by enduring and transcending great difficulty,” Ryan writes. “Growing up in rural poverty, losing his mother while he was still a child, educating himself, teaching himself the law, losing the woman he loved as a young man, practicing law in a small country town, experiencing multiple defeats at the ballot box as he made his way through politics, and, of course, the bouts of depression, which at the time were not understood or appreciated as a medical condition.”
In time, Lincoln came to believe these challenges were part of his destiny.
“Depression, especially, was a unique experience that prepared him for greater things. He learned to endure all this, articulate it, and find benefit and meaning from it,” Ryan observes. “Understanding this is key to understanding the man’s greatness.”
Lincoln’s hardships developed qualities and virtues that prepared him to lead our nation through its own “dark night of the soul.”
“To live with his depression, Lincoln had developed a strong inner fortress that girded him,” Ryan writes. The Civil War “was to become nearly incomprehensibly violent, and Lincoln, who’d attempted at first to prevent it, would fight to win justly, and finally try to end it with ‘malice towards none.’
Educated in suffering, Lincoln learned (in Virgil’s words) “to comfort those who suffer too.”
He connected with those around him and the nation on a deep level “because he had access to a part of the human experience that many had walled themselves off from. His personal pain was an advantage,” writes Ryan. “He could not find it in his heart to hate like others could. His own experience with suffering drove his compassion to allay it in others.”
2: Of course, Lincoln was smart and crafty and ambitious. But his greatest quality was his will. “The way he was able to resign himself to an onerous task without giving in to hopelessness, the way he could contain both humor and deadly seriousness, the way he could use his own private turmoil to teach and help others, the way he was able to rise above the din and see politics philosophically.”
Abe’s favorite saying? “This too shall pass.” Which he once said was applicable in any and every situation and circumstance.
As leaders, we look into the future. We set goals. We make plans. We envision a better reality.
But we must be equally prepared for the worst. And then prepare to make the best of the worst and carry on.
“Leadership requires determination and energy. And certain situations, at times, call on leaders to marshal that determined energy simply to endure,” Ryan writes. “To provide strength in terrible times.”
Which is what Lincoln did. Because of what he’d endured, “because of what he’d struggled with and learned to cope with in his own life, he was able to lead,” writes Ryan. “To hold a nation, a cause, an effort, together.”
What exactly is will? “Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world,” Ryan notes.
“It’s what allows us to stand undisturbed while others wilt and give in to disorder,” he writes. “Confident, calm, ready to work regardless of the conditions. Willing and able to continue, even during the unthinkable, even when our worst nightmares have come true.”
Perception is the discipline of the mind. Action is the discipline of the body. Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul.
“Will is fortitude and wisdom—not just about specific obstacles but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it,” Ryan observes. “It gives us ultimate strength. As in: the strength to endure, contextualize, and derive meaning from the obstacles we cannot simply overcome.”
Abe was a strong and decisive leader. “But he also embodied the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in our task,” Ryan writes.
Reflection: Think back on a time when my will allowed me to persevere.
Action: Journal about this experience. What lessons did I learn?