The Rising Leader Series: Week 21 - Depression
Updated: May 24
A quick lightning strike of thunderclap sorrow
Blunt struck her to the ground as if by thief
Then stole her meager claim on tomorrow
Then shoved her in a dungeon pit of grief
She couldn’t rise– the shoveled dirt rose higher
She couldn’t move– the weight took all her breath
Inside the trap, dreams were rendered liars
And joy and hope and love were rendered death
Til her small, weak, heavy heart remembered
God’s gift of never-ending, grace-touched love
Up rose two hands in desperate surrender
Down came two hands to grip hers from above
Back on the surface, still close is the pit
But God guides her way as she walks past it
You are humanity’s hope. This is why your leadership preparation is of utmost importance. Just look around. Ineffective, misguided, short-sighted, selfish, compulsive and tyrannical leaders have wreaked havoc on our world long enough. At this moment of peril, we need capable, ethical leaders. This is why I write to you each week. In these letters I seek to make some small contribution to your growth as a servant leader.
Since this is my twenty-first letter to you, you now know what I believe– that the best path to ethical fortitude is a deep and sustaining relationship with God. Over the past twenty weeks I have explored with you many aspects of that relationship, and its impact on ethical formation.
Today, I wish to explore the psychological state called depression. At some point, all of us will experience it. This is because we all encounter loss, which brings grief. Depression is the fourth stage of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).
For some, depression can rise up without an obvious prompt. There are even those for whom the torment of depression persists throughout life. How does one cope? And how does a leader experiencing depression continue to lead, with clarity and ethical fortitude? It’s an important question for all leaders, whose decisions impact so many.
Abraham Lincoln fought depression his entire life. One man who knew him well said, “his melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Lincoln himself once spoke of "that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death". Born into poverty in a log cabin in Kentucky and raised on the frontier, he became a lawyer and entered politics, experiencing both wins and losses until a fateful sequence of events elevated him to the presidency. Despite his ever-present melancholy, this greatest of American presidents led our nation through our darkest hour. How did he do it? What can we learn?
By 1860, Lincoln was on the precipice of the presidency. It was a time of rising tension and conflict in the United States, centered on the question of slavery. Two years previously, In his failed bid for a Senate seat, Lincoln had shined on the national stage– losing in a close contest to Stephen Douglas. The Lincoln-Douglas debates that preceded the election are to this day considered some of history’s finest. In these debates, Lincoln clarified his own moral convictions and sharpened his arguments against slavery. Two years later, on February 27, 1860 Lincoln spoke in front of 1,500 people at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York.
Before the speech, Lincoln was reported to be wearing a “woe-begone look”. But as he took the stage, his haggard composure fell away. The passion of his convictions straightened his spine and captivated the crowd. As he spoke his final words– "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it"-- the crowd went wild. The New York Tribune reported the next day that "No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.” After the speech, a friend who escorted him to his hotel described Lincoln as follows: "No man in all New York appeared that night more simple, more unassuming, more modest, more unpretentious, more conscious of his own defects." He called him a "sad and lonely man."
Melancholy persecuted Lincoln for the rest of his life– through all the trials of his presidency and the terrible events of the Civil War. We have all seen the photographs of Lincoln as president, his face etched with crevices, his eyes sad and care-worn. And yet by all accounts, Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents. He ignited the conscience of the nation. He was a clear-eyed realist; he stared down truth and made difficult decisions that, at times, cost many precious lives. In the end, he saved the union. When it became clear the war would soon be won by the North, he worked to prepare all its citizens for the healing that would need to follow. In his second inaugural address, just 41 days before his assassination, he bestowed upon the nation the healing wisdom it needed most. Words now etched in history were first forged in his depression-tested journey of faith:
“Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other… 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."
How did Lincoln lead despite his continuous struggle with depression? He prayed his way through it. When friends told him they feared for his assassination, his response was: “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.” He routinely read the Bible. God was his constant companion as he struggled with his tortured soul and sought pathways through the dark valleys of his life. In searing communion with God, Lincoln’s moral clarity, humility and courage emerged.
Good leader, your bouts with depression may be brief and rare. Or depression may become a persistent cross, to be borne over the greater part of your life. I don’t know why God allows bad things to happen to good people. All I know is that God is with us in the midst of our deepest, darkest moments. God the Father didn’t rescue Jesus on the cross; He redeemed Him. And so it sometimes is with us. Even when no miracle comes to save us, He is with us. Sometimes all we may hear is silence– but God’s silence can be trusted. He loves us with an infinite passion, and if we keep hold of His hand He will help us to transcend our deepest pain. Hand in hand with Him we will be led back to the land of the living; once there He will help us return to His work as best we understand it. There we will serve Him such as we can, for as long as we can, despite our many frailties and imperfections.
There are times when depression may even slide into despair. Next week's letter is about that.
“Answer me quickly, O Lord! My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit. Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”-- Psalm 143: 7-8
Your friend in hope and faith,
Previous Weeks' Letters: