February Review - Sideswiped With Melancholy

Here's something a little different. A 2-in-1 book review: Something old and something new, something borrowed and definitely something 'blue'.

Lincoln's Melancholy - How Depression Challenged A President And Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, and Sideswiped - Three Keys To A Fresh Start After Suffering A Broken Heart, by Michael Voll. 

One old and one new biographical exploration of brokenness; depths of the soul not well understood for many centuries. These are two stories for our time as depression is the number one disability we are facing today, ten times worse than it was 50 years ago. We're obviously not just talking about having 'the blues'.

From a young age the sensitive Abraham Lincoln experienced psychological pain and distress - and he eventually learned how to adapt and endure. First there were the deaths of his mother, aunt, and uncle due to terrible illness, the loss of his brother in infancy, a long absent father courting a new wife, then the passing of his very close sister during a still-birth delivery. Lincoln's fiancé passed away. Later four of his five children would die.

Suicidal thoughts plagued him more than once. At age 32 after a series of crises he surmised frankly, "I am now the most miserable man living." He endured a long process of trials, from whether he must die to how he must live. Here was a man who felt deeper and thought harder than most others.

When introduced in 1860 as a candidate for the presidency men threw hats into the air, shaking the hall so much that the awning over the stage collapsed; "the roof was literally cheered off the building." 51 years old, Lincoln was finally at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House. Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn't seem thrilled, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw." The next day the convention closed. The crowds dispersed, leaving behind cigar stubs and handbills - and Lincoln. The lieutenant governor of Illinois, William J. Bross, saw Lincoln sitting alone at the end of the hall, his head bowed, his gangly arms bent at the elbows, his hands pressed to his face. As Bross approached, Lincoln noticed him and said, "I'm not very well."

Often Lincoln wept in public. His law partner William Herndon said, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked." Only in our recent generation have we been able to look back at the immense collection of literature, manuscript archives and oral histories with surprising fresh perspectives on this so-called melancholy.

Lincoln was able to identify and express his suffering as a broken person. In his mid-life he looked for ways to cope with his depression, both a time of pain and growth as he looked for greater purpose. All his suffering then began to bear fruit. As President during the civil war Lincoln drew upon his qualities to move through pain instead of avoiding it. He used his humor, poetry, his profound insight and truthful ability to look at the world as it was, his creative responses to adversity, and his humble determination in the face of great difficulty. This made Lincoln a great world leader who managed to incorporate the coping strategies he developed over a lifetime of persevering to guide America through its greatest turmoil.

Abraham Lincoln fought depression all his life, and if he were alive today, J.W. Shenk believes his condition would be treated as a "character issue" - that is, as a political liability. His condition, he insists, was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation.    

Lincoln's melancholy is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see that life more clearly, and discern its lessons. Shenk observes that: "In a sense, what needs 'treatment' is our own narrow ideas - of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain; and finally, of mental trials as a flaw in character and a disqualification for leadership."

One book is an unearthing of leadership life-lessons to be treasured; the other book, hot off the presses, traces a journey through loss and grief being lived out in the present tense.  One is a study of the diverse perspectives of depression over centuries, the other a personal faith journey through it, and not around it. 


In Sideswiped we learn how Michael Voll married his high school sweetheart and entered Christian ministry as a youth pastor. Life was rolling along smoothly when suddenly things literally went sideways. A tragic single-car accident in the winter of 2001 took the life of his young bride before his eyes.
Fourteen years later, with an enlarged ministry, he has now been able to write about his journey with the goal of sharing empathy and wisdom with others who have also felt 'sideswiped' in life.

In a recent television interview, Michael was asked how we can help when someone is going through a difficult time without being hurtful. We must be careful with our words and always offer loving comfort, sometimes without any advice at all. We must commit to being there for someone over the long term. 

Inevitably, there is a process of denial, bargaining, anxiety, anger, cynicism, depression, guilt, lack of focus, sleep deprivation ... not in easy-to-predict steps, mind you. One can never tell what wave of emotion will sweep over you next, nor when it will return with vengeance. Sometimes you will weep uncontrollably, other times no tears will come when you need them. All of this can lead to what has been called PTFD or 'post traumatic faith disorder' where you feel like God has let you down. There is a much much older phrase for it, known as 'The Dark Night of the Soul'. 

It is in these times, Michael writes, that you find your true friends, your most meaningful relationships (unlike Job's so-called comforters) as love and compassion is poured out in ways big and small. Michael's stories will touch your heart and equip you to help people experiencing brokenness and not compound further harm. 
Sideswiped helps us understand that suffering is not absent from the Christian life. He quotes Paul Tillich: "Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith." What Michael has discovered is that brokenness does not disqualify from leadership, rather when worked through it qualifies your character as an authentic person that hurting people will truly listen to. It gives perspective, grounds you in reality; when rightly dealt with it makes one better, not bitter. Suffering produces perseverance - grit and determination.

So there is HOPE: Hold On Pain Ends. 

Michael was 'Sideswiped' twice. Once by loss, then, by the grace of God, the blossoming of a new love. Michael has had to re-learn how to do pastoral ministry as a wounded healer. Through painful experiences he can offer practical wisdom on what helps, and also what doesn't, as someone goes through the grieving process in their own unique way.

God is not waiting on the mountain-top to see if we can make it through the difficult journey on our own. He promises to be with us through the dark valleys of the shadow of death. The beautiful gifts of compassion and depth of understanding come from all the wounded healers who, like Michael, have been touched by grace.