Melancholy


After I posted on confession and healing, Liam brought up the experiences of some of our brothers and sisters, “among them, the scrupulous, the manic, the addict, the anxious, the depressed and many others.” In some communities of which he was part, Liam tells us, he detected an “ambivalent attitude” towards them: “The experiences were only valid to the extent it allowed you to claim victimization; otherwise, you were expected to defer to the ‘Be Joyful in The Lord, Dammit!’ timbre of so much else.”

I was thinking about that as I read a column in the most recent Christian Century by L. Gregory Jones, Dean of the Duke Divinity School. Dr Jones was inspired by a reading of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s recent Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness:

Over time, Lincoln learned to hold together both his burden and his gift. He appreciated the complexity of life, and persevered even when situations looked hopeless. Lincoln had learned that the only way to survive was through the suffering, not by trying to evade, deny or flee it.

Shenk recognizes that Lincoln’s theological views are indispensable both to his disposition and his leadership, though he struggles to articulate their full significance. Lincoln placed his own life and that of the country as a whole within a larger, coherent story—the story of God’s purposes in the world.

What does such an account tell us about our yearning for leaders like Lincoln? Shenk briefly alludes to our contemporary demand that politicians be optimists who seem disconnected from suffering, a predicament found among Democrats no less than Republicans. We need leaders who are capable of joy and hope for the future, but we might need to turn to people who are drawn to melancholy. At the very least, we need them to be people whose joy and hope have been tested and shaped by the crucible of suffering.

Great authors from Aristotle to Edgar Allan Poe have argued that there is a close connection between a melancholic disposition and the beautiful, whether this connection is found in statesmen or writers. To be sure, this does not mean that one should seek out suffering in some masochistic way, or that one should dwell in a morose or self-pitying sense of victimization. After all, Lincoln’s leadership was marked by strength of character, humility and a profound commitment to the good of the country and its people.

Might it be, however, that the first place to turn for melancholy leaders is the church? After all, if our lives are patterned in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are marked by the complexity and wholeness that Shenk describes. If we pray the Psalms daily, we’ll discover the full range of suffering and hope, grief and joy, lived in the providence of God’s care for us and for the world. If we learn to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), we’ll become aware of both the fragility and the connectedness of our lives. And if we learn to live as caring communities, supporting one another in times of sadness as well as joy, we’ll offer a more faithful witness than communities that are either morose or saccharine.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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