“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
While my admiration of Lincoln as a President and a human being is abundant and sincere, I have hated this quote since the first time I read it. It often appears in the midst of some brightly-colored cartoon confection of illustration involving flowers, children on swings, and fat, puffy clouds. I dislike being motivated, cajoled, bucked up or otherwise manipulated into feeling something other than what I organically feel, and the notion that I could just snap my fingers and Be Happy makes me downright hostile.
There are, undoubtedly, folks out there who have the discipline to change their mood by “making their mind up.” I imagine some gigantic mental bed, and these able practitioners stripping the bed of the sad, tortured, dirty mental linen and replacing it with sheets fresh from the clothesline and redolent of spring air and sunshine. I envy them that, as I envy those who have the capacity to “zone out,” not so much making a concerted effort as developing an ability not to look at the bad stuff.
I not only look at it, I catalogue it after examining it with a magnifying glass, or maybe an electron microscope. I find myself digging in the way one’s tongue finds its way again and again into the fresh hole left by a lost tooth, then making myself stop, then digging again. I pick, I write long, illuminated manuscripts in my head about every possible facet of wrongness, and I get kind of lost in it until a switch is thrown by some unseen hand and it’s over. I cannot “change my mind,” and I can’t look the other way; I’m riding every mixed metaphorical wave until it crashes to the shore.
Back to Mr. Lincoln. As you may know, his wife Mary Todd was considered “mentally unstable,” and towards the end of her life the combination of mental illness and grief caused her to attempt suicide and, eventually, to be institutionalized in a psychiatric facility. I often wonder, seriously, because I wonder about things like this, whether Abe really believed that Mary could just try harder and “get happy.” When he uttered his famous words of bonhomminous buck-uppery, what did she think about them? Was he blowing smoke (as politicians have been known to do), or maybe taking a frustrated, public jab at a wife who was kind of a pain in the ass? Was he, himself, one of those people who has the capacity to change his mental linen, or was he simply able to distract himself with other things until the pain passed? Maybe the statement was made early in their marriage, before he fully realized the extent of her problems.
And what did Mary Todd think, bedeviled, intense and moody, unable to change her mental state by sheer force of will? I think of her suffering, smothering in her own despair, without so much as an iPod full of Happy Mixes, MTV reality shows or a Hershey bar and a stack of fashion magazines to help her through the worst times. She probably didn’t even have the luxury of confiding in friends.
I will probably always think Lincoln was a great president; that Civil War business was tough, and within the parameters of his time, he acquitted himself honorably. I grew up looking at a portrait of him every night during dinner, and I always thought he looked sad; maybe that’s why I have so much trouble with that ridiculous quote and the notion of him giving in to some Pollyanna folksiness that has irked me for forty years. In the Slough of Despond, where I wallow from time to time as did Mary Todd and countless others, there is not much room for shiny platitudes. We are, I think, wired differently, and it just takes as long as it takes. I can’t fault Abe for trying, but he was wrong. Dead wrong.