the dharma of lincoln

June 15th, 2017

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t in any textbook I’d read as a schoolgirl. It wasn’t at the memorial on the mall or the monument blasted onto the face of a mountain. I didn’t find it in any of the 10 million pages collected by 10 thousand presidential historians. It wasn’t even at Gettysburg, where the rolling fields of green still heave with everlasting shame. I suspect it was the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 that opened my eyes for the first time to the hidden dimensions of the human being we know as Lincoln, an odd and nearly unknowable man transfigured by grief and despair, shouldering the immeasurable wrongs of a divided people and broken nation. And then came this year’s amazing work by George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, a fantastical rendering of an event that might have converted the man from a doubtful political strategist into a courageous instrument of compassion.

The worst times make the best leaders, and if not, we’re so much the worse.

So some days, awake and reading the news in stunned torpor, I wonder how Lincoln might have seen the day. What he might still have to say. Then I go looking for words to calm my agitation. Lincoln’s dharma, like all dharma—the truth—does not fail to illuminate the way.

What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself. — Campaign circular, 1843.

How fortunate that Lincoln didn’t distinguish himself with vanity.

Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them. — Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay

In his humility, he saw the One in the many.

Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. — Speech to 140th Indiana Regiment, March 17, 1865

And the many as One.

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.—1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

We must take responsibility for the greed, anger, and ignorance in our own hearts.

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. — Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864

With no promise to turn back time, but rather, to face things as they are.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. — 2nd Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

Only how we respond in this present moment can save us.

An Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! — Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Sept. 30, 1859

And this, too, shall pass away.

I have stepped out upon this platform that I may see you and that you may see me, and in the arrangement I have the best of the bargain. — Remarks at Painesville, Ohio, Feb. 16, 1861

Visit Washington and you might see the corpus of a 28-foot-tall man enshrined on the platform of a marble throne. But that’s not what Lincoln sees. Through the open portal right in front of him, he sees vast emptiness reaching beyond the horizon, and under a common sky, the good people he has vowed to serve as one, now and forever.

These days, it helps to look at things his way.


Photo Source: Shorpy Historical Photo Archive. May 5, 1922. Washington, D.C. “Vista of Monument from Lincoln Memorial.” National Photo Company Collection glass negative.




  1. Yes. Lincoln in the Bardo was amazing, and it made me long for a leader like Lincoln.

    (In the absence of that, I guess we’ll have to lead ourselves.)

    Comment by Lorianne — June 15, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

  2. Thank you. I have added Lincoln at the Bardo to my library list. The Lincoln monument took my breath away the first time I visited it. Thank you for taking me back there. I can close my eyes and remember the immensity and the courage it evokes to stand up for what is right.

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — June 15, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

  3. Or stand up by sitting down.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — June 15, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

  4. Once again your words have struck a bell deep in my heart. Thank you.

    Comment by Rosanne Cassidy — June 16, 2017 @ 5:25 am

  5. I’ve been reading lots of Mary Oliver just as a reminder to observe the world rather than engaging it. This thoughtful post leads me gently back to paying attention to certain realities. It is a lovely reminder that there has been grace and dignity in the office of the President. I love smart people ♡

    Comment by Bonnie Nygren — June 16, 2017 @ 6:46 am

  6. Awesome words still a century later. Thank you for putting them before us again.

    Comment by Lauren Stewart — June 16, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

  7. I think you should be practicing now writing with your other hand and dictating by voice so that the source of your writing might be preserved longer. A flexible, agile and open-eyed writer is too valuable to be limited to one means of expression.

    Comment by Bill — June 17, 2017 @ 4:34 am

  8. I really needed to read what you wrote here today (even if you didn’t write it today). Thank you! May wisdom and compassion prevail… may leadership from all walks of life arise and lift us up together…

    Comment by Char — July 26, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

  9. You are so wise! Definitely, words to take to heart these days. Thank you for sharing them.

    Comment by Alice Martin — May 20, 2019 @ 4:00 pm

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