I am not too hot about doing my autobiography. Some places in my past are still a bit too intense to revisit. Unfortunately I lead a mentoring ministry called NextUp that seeks to help people discern their vocation in the context of community.
The closing exercise of the group is to do a time line that revisits all the key events of your life to get clues as to what the Lord is saying to you through your own history. I lead about three NextUp cohorts a year. And I am a full participant in the group though I am the facilitator.
Therefore I end up visiting my past at least three times a year. And each time I come to the same conclusion. I grew most through the most painful episodes of my life. It seems this is a universal experience.
In the recent issue of the Atlantic (October 2005), Joshua Wolf Shenk has an article (Lincoln’s Great Depression) that documents President Abraham Lincoln’s clinical depression and concludes that it was his life long battle with depression that equipped him to do the great work of his life.
Shenk gives compelling historical evidence for Lincoln’s life long struggle with depression but also shows that the depression gave Lincoln three key qualities.
Firstly it gave him clarity. For example, Lincoln saw slavery for what it was, something founded in the selfishness of man’s nature (and), opposition to it, his love for justice. Shenk correlates Lincoln’s clarity with modern psychiatric literature that recognizes depressive realism, the sadder but wiser effect. Pain gives clarity.
Next, Lincoln’s depression gave him creativity. His literary prowess is well documented, the Gettysburg address being but one example of his work. Shenk concludes that Lincoln’s overwhelming melancholy fed into a supple creative power, which allowed him not merely to see the truth of his circumstances but to express it in a stirring, meaningful way. Shenk notes that the correlation between mental illness and creativity is fairly well documented.
Finally, Shenk sees that Lincoln’s suffering kept him humble. The many griefs of his life fed this sense of humility. Lincoln was always clear that God was the captain of life and that he was at most a sailor allowed to work on the deck of God’s ship.
Lincoln particularly appreciated the eulogy that was said when his eleven year old son died. The pastor, Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, preached that “in the hour of trial one must look to Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well.” Lincoln asked for a copy of the eulogy. “He would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.”
Shenk concludes that “Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.” One can only wonder as to what would have happened if Lincoln had access to Prozac.
I took a fresh look at my own life through Shenk’s triad for Lincoln — clarity, creativity and humility.
Clarity. Yes, suffering does raise the sensitivity of one’s BS sensors. After the storm(s) things are clearer. You tend to see what is more important in life, relationships, the church, etc.,
Creativity. I am not sure if there is a direct linkage. Many things in life are multi factorial. But yes, I see some of my best teaching, writing, and guidance coming after my most difficult times.
Lincoln was not exactly a card carrying Christian. He worshiped in a Presbyterian church but never joined as a member. Yet his suffering taught him profound lessons about life and about God.
A cursory glance at church history will reveal that many of God’s servants also experienced deep pain in their lives. Many of God’s choice servants were shaped in the seminary of suffering.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. We do follow a Saviour who brought forth life through suffering and death.
Still, as one who has made his own short sojourn into clinical depression I cannot see how I would wish that experience on any one. Indeed as we visit Eden, and the new heavens and the new earth, we see that pain was never God’s norm for His people.
The reality is that we now live in a fallen world where pain is a given. Quoting Eugene O’Neil, Shenk reminds us that ?Man is born broken.? Post Fall, pain is a given. A wise and loving God now uses that brokenness for His higher purposes.
Today, we live in a society that sees pain as an enemy to be removed as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I understand this desire. Pain is no fun. It’s just that sometimes we remove pain too quickly, before it can deliver its message.
Sometimes, we need to discover as Paul did in his episode with the thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12: 1-10), that pain can be teachers in disguise, messengers sent from God with the most profound truths.
Part of growing up involves embracing life as it is, thorns and all. But it includes embracing the fact that thorns can produce a Lincoln and the fall of slavery.
We all await the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. Maranatha indeed!!! In the meantime, while waiting, let us learn, let us grow, let us serve.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan