I was in a Salvation Army store the other day browsing through the book section. I opened a softback book Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul. Wouldn’t you know it? The book opened to a page with a Lincoln quote. This sort of thing happens to me quite often. The page was entitled Sorrow. It featured the words of Abraham Lincoln which were actually from a letter he wrote to Fanny McCullough in 1862. Her father was a Lincoln’s friend. He was killed in action serving in the Union army. He wrote her the personal letter to offer his comfort, I believe. The quote in the book is condensed. The language has been modernized as well. Rather than offer the words of the actual Lincoln letter as he wrote them, I would like to stay with the quote as found in the book. Certainly it still conveys Lincoln’s heartfelt sympathies to the young woman. Here is the quote:
“In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all, and it often comes with bitter agony. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it, will make you less miserable now. I have had enough experience to make this statement.”
I have been using Lincoln’s letter to Fanny McCullough for my patients in therapy for several years now. You can easily see why. It is touching. It resonates with people. It offers hope. Permit me to offer a few comments about what Lincoln said:
“In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all, and it often comes with bitter agony.”
Lincoln speaks a great truth. The world is sad. He had experienced so much sadness himself at that point in his life: death, the war, poverty in youth… Acknowledging the pain and sorrow that exists for all people is a strong empathetic point. One can almost imagine Lincoln’s own agony as he writes the letter. His friend is dead. Maybe he feels partly responsible because he is Commander-in-chief. And he must truly feel some of the heartbreak that Fanny is feeling. Lincoln is taking it hard. The “bitter agony” is in his own soul over this.
“Perfect relief is not possible, except with time.”
This brings to mind the saying: “Time heals all wounds.” Lincoln is saying that the pain of the loss is going to sting for a long while. Yet, he is also noting that the hurt will getter better over time. Again, Lincoln knows what it means to lose a loved one. He lost his mother when he was nine years old. He had lost several others since then. There is a shred of hope in this statement. If Fanny can endure the loss over time-it will get better. Hang in there Fanny!
“You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true.”
Yes, Lincoln affirms- it is hard to envision life without your loved one, Fanny. It probably seems impossible that you will ever get over it. Then Lincoln declares: “But this is not true.” Fanny is a young woman. Lincoln is in his middle fifties. He can say that his experience has shown him that she will feel better. Take hope, Fanny! It won’t always be like this. You will smile again. I promise!
“You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it, will make you less miserable now.”
Lincoln is very encouraging now. He tells Fanny in no uncertain terms that she will be happy again. Lincoln has suffered loss. He has suffered depression. He has had his moments. He is trying to convince her to believe this (that she will be happy again) to inspire her road to healing and recovery. It’s as if he is saying: Take my word for it Fanny, you will find happiness again. You must believe this and take hope! If this step is taken (believing it), Lincoln says she will begin to feel less disturbed. Please Fanny, do this!
“I have had enough experience to make this statement.”
Lincoln’s words carry weight because he has been through it himself. Advice that is offered from someone who has no experience with the concern at hand is rather shallow. Fanny knows this is true. She knows Lincoln. As president, many of the trials and tribulations of his life are already known to the public. Fanny reads Lincoln’s words, and they are comforting- and expressed with a heartfeltness that only a fellow sufferer could convey. Fanny, please count on Lincoln’s experiences with this. As they say nowadays: “Been there, done that!”
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