In touch with Lincoln’s greatest fear…

Photo by B. Nash

Photo by B. Nash



Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud

A flash of lightning, a break of the wave

He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.


Taken from Mortality- a poem by William Knox



It’s been said that the poem Mortality was a favorite of Lincolns. He had memorized .and quoted it when the occasion suited him. Lincoln was a young man when he first heard the work- only in his twenties. Lincoln apparently thought a lot about mortality and death. He grew up during the frontier days when life was often very difficult and fraught with dangers. People often died very young. He had lost his mother when he was but a lad. He had lost his sister too. There were others who had passed away. He thought about the brevity of life. It was for him a “flash of lightning.” His personal fear though wasn’t so much that he was going to die. He knew he was going to die. His fear was that he was going to die and not be remembered. That’s a bit of a different twist. He was very uncomfortable with the idea that no one would remember that he had lived-that he had done nothing to be remembered for. That he, like millions of souls before him, would be forgotten by all. Somehow, that seems to have had a special terror for Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps that fear motivated him to greatness.


I stood on the ground that was once the site of my childhood home. It was March 2013. I was stunned by the absence of the house. Like so many of the vacant and abandoned houses in Detroit, my childhood home had been empty for several years. I always knew it would be torn down at some point. I guess I wasn’t really prepared for it when it came. Somehow the sight of seeing the old house there was a comfort for me.  And then that day had arrived-it was gone. So there I was. There was absolutely no trace that the house had been there. I looked around for something familiar. Towards the front sidewalk there was the old tree. It was still there. It helped me get my bearings. That tree stood directly in front of the house. I could visualize where the house was simply by the guidance of the position of the tree. According to my calculations, I was standing approximately in the middle of my house! Unbelievable. The empty feeling that overcame me. Over eighty years of my family history had occurred there. Much of my personal history had taken place there. And on that bright and sunny March day, there was nothing to indicate anything about my family and personal history left at the scene. No one would know anything! There was the dirt. There was the old tree. There was a vacant spot on the block of houses that were left on the street.  Then I felt insignificant. I think I knew what Lincoln felt. No one would remember- the house, the family, or me. I was in touch with Lincoln’s greatest fear. It wasn’t a good place to be….

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