On Emulating Abraham Lincoln and the Perils of Text Messaging

Lincoln Memorial

Have you ever been so angry at friends or life in general that you wanted to explode? Ever fall into a funk with life, feeling down and out, dejected and disheartened?

I was in such a place just before Christmas. The winter solstice brings out the best and worst in us, I suppose. So it was I did “beweep my [perceived] outcast state.” When I found myself in this uncomfortable place, I remembered one of the ways Abraham Lincoln used to deal with his own anger and melancholy: Abe would write letters expressing his deepest feelings, and never send them.

I tried that with a few text messages, and got burned when I accidentally sent a couple of them.

Abraham Lincoln I’m not.

Abraham Lincoln, two words that mean “America” almost more than “Old Glory.” I try to emulate Abe in politics, in the way I write, in the way I deal with people. I’ve also tried to employ some of Honest Abe’s coping mechanisms. To make a point in an argument or debate, Lincoln would tell a clever short story, emphasis on short. With brevity and humor, Lincoln would make his point, helping to quell a potentially polemical debate. In doing so, the man succeeded in building bridges, working with people who disagreed with him significantly.

Lincoln also had his bouts with depression. Consider an excerpt from God, Lincoln and Depression, published January 2, 2010 Psychology Today:

Abraham Lincoln is an unusual psychological case study. He was both chronically melancholy, and yet among the strongest people in history.

Lincoln lost perhaps his one true love, and married a mentally unstable woman who abused him. He loved his sons – indulged them ridiculously – but one died very young, and another (Willie) died at age 11 in the White House, almost breaking Lincoln.

Oddly, the same philosophical-psychological outlook caused Lincoln to be both depressed, and incredibly strong. Lincoln was not a Christian, as he was raised. But it is not accurate to call him a disbeliever. His parents were hard-core Baptists, and Lincoln rejected their church. But their Calvinist views of predestination had an indelible impact on Lincoln.

Throughout his life, Lincoln was stricken with bouts of sometimes paralyzing melancholy. And although he enjoyed reading, telling stories, practicing law, political machinations – and playing with his children above all – Lincoln was never a cheerful person.

One method Abraham Lincoln employed to work through his occasional anger, depression and bouts of self-doubt was to write letters. To his credit, he never sent most of the letters he wrote. Lincoln wrote many letters expressing disappointment and anger, placed each letter in an envelope addressed to the person who was the target of his wrath, put the envelop in a drawer, and moved on. Many of these letters, according to Lincoln on Leadership, were in the form of conversations. Lincoln would go all out, expressing in these letters his anger and criticism of his subordinates, often in very scathing terms, then seal the letters, leaving them forever undelivered.

The website LettersNeverSent.com shares a passage from Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, a book I read in my youth, and should probably read again:

As Abraham Lincoln lay dying of an assassin’s bullet, Secretary of War Stanton was quoted as saying “There lies the most perfect ruler of men that the world has ever seen.”

What made Lincoln such a great leader? He succeeded in curing himself of the critical spirit we’ve talked about this morning.

Lincoln had suffered through inept and bungling generals for the first three years of the war. McClellen, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker… but in the summer of 1863, it seemed that the Union under General Meade would finally be able to crush the confederacy. Lee had stumbled badly at Gettysburg and needed to flee back across the Potomac to regroup and survive. But the Potomac was swollen and crossing was impossible. Sensing victory at hand, Lincoln sent both a telegraph and a special messenger to Meade specifically instructing him not to hold a war council but to attack immediately. What did Meade do? He held his war council and delayed. Because of that delay Lee had the time to move his troops across the river to safety.

Lincoln was crushed. In anger he composed this letter:

“My dear General,

I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few – no more than 2/3’s of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do no expect that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

What do you suppose Meade did when he read that letter?… He never did. Lincoln never sent the letter. It was found later amongst Lincoln’s papers following his death. Why didn’t he send it? Because he had come to grips with a critical spirit and determined to defeat it.

Abraham Lincoln

As I mentioned, while in my less-than-happy place before the Christmas holiday, I decided to tap out a few text messages expressing my anger and disappointment at life. I don’t text many people, so I opened the last few messages I had sent, and started clumsily typing in my mobile phone. In the back of my mind, I was remembering Abraham Lincoln, how he found writing like this therapeutic.

I did too. It really helped.

I went at it, giving vent to every petty insecurity I felt at the time. I was on fire.

I did this over a period of a few days, each session choosing the last person I had texted in real life, filling a text field with my rambling rants, then I would go on to the next text message I had sent, and fill that field. After each therapy session, I would return to what I had written and carefully backspace over my diatribes, carefully erasing them.

Or so I thought.

Turns out I don’t send enough texts to know the subtleties of my phone’s messaging client.  In short, I really don’t know how to use the software.

So, a few days later, while away for the holidays, feeling much better and enjoying family, I took it upon myself to send a couple of friendly text messages to some friends — or so I thought.

On two occasions that I know of, I found that portions of my rants had not been completely deleted, somehow hiding above my phone’s cursor. Off they went to my friends, making my Christmas greetings sound like sarcastic stabs in the back.

I’ll not suffer through the details of what I actually sent here.  Just know that what I sent sounded juvenile and trite.

Instant communication is a wonderful thing, but it’s very hard to take back.

So I write this hoping to pass along a lesson learned.  Be careful when you text — something I should have known.

How would Lincoln have survived email, voicemail, and text messaging, I wonder?

Better than I have, I’m sure.

I still have explaining to do.