The Lesson of Abraham Lincoln’s Pear-Tree

How to Prevent Depression

“A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree.”

Those are the words of Abraham Lincoln. A wise, humble, and sweet man. Before we chat the quotation, let’s take a little stroll.

History has always interested me. And I especially enjoy reading biographies of the men and women who have steered its course. Just before Christmas, my brother plopped a 900-page monster in my lap and invited me to have at it. It was Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin.

For me, anyway, a great book is one from which you can pick-up all sorts of wonderful things beyond what may have been the author’s intent. And so it is with this “great” book.

I’d like to share one such “wonderful thing” with you…

It’s been written that Abraham Lincoln endured what, today, we call major depressive disorder. According to author Goodwin, the hunch is based upon Lincoln’s contemporaries’ observation of “the sorrowful aspect of his features.” Also contributing, “the sadness attributed to him.”

In fact, according to Goodwin, Lincoln possessed “an uncanny understanding of his shifting moods, a profound self-awareness that enabled him to find constructive ways to alleviate sadness and stress.” She cites, “Out of all his colleagues, Lincoln possessed the most even-tempered disposition.”

Goodwin could find no objective evidence that Lincoln was at all immobilized by depression. Rather, her research revealed a “melancholy temperament.”

We’ve discussed temperament, which comes in all flavors (melancholy, anxious, irritable, oppositional, and more) many times here on Chipur. It’s on board at birth and molded by life experience.

So now that we’ve taken our stroll, let’s get back to the lesson of Lincoln’s pear-tree…

A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree.

Simple, don’t you think? Incidentally, the quotation includes that italicized “force.”

The take-away can be applied to so many situations. But since this is a depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder education and relief blog, let’s stay in our neck-of-the-woods.

Lincoln made that statement in 1863. And the topic of conversation was a proposition included in the Emancipation Proclamation. Specifically, the provision allowing freed slaves to enlist in the armed forces.

Lincoln and his advisers knew the provision could lead to some nasty fallout at home and abroad. And some of them suggested he become more aggressive in ascertaining public reaction – even taking to the road to check the public pulse.

But Lincoln knew it was best to hunker down for a while and patiently wait for public reaction to evolve – and come to him. And that couldn’t have been easy, given how close to his heart the Emancipation Proclamation was.

Lincoln’s words speak volumes of wisdom to anyone enduring difficult and trying times. As much as we may want to force the process of healing, it’s most often best to allow things to run their natural course.


Does accepting that smidge of reality equate to accepting prolonged pain, desperation, and hopelessness? ‘Fraid so. But with the stakes so high, don’t we need to make sure we’re getting the job done right?  I sure think so.

Okay, I can’t resist. How ‘bout one more quick Lincoln story and quotation?

In the early 1840s, Lincoln was at his melancholy worse. This combination of events tore him apart: his closest friend Joshua Speed announced he was leaving Springfield (Illinois) for his family home in Kentucky, he’d dissolved his engagement to Mary Todd, and a troubling legislative issue that threatened his reputation.

Lincoln was behaving erratically and became suicidal. Those closest to him were frightened.

Twenty years later, Speed visited Lincoln at the White House. It was shortly after he’d signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In conversation, Lincoln reminded Speed of his suicidal thoughts 20 years earlier. He told Speed he actually would have gladly died, but he “had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.”

Do you see why I enjoy reading the biographies of great men and women?

Are you troubled, and so desperately seeking relief and healing that you’re about to fast-lane yourself out of both? Remember the lesson of Abraham Lincoln’s pear-tree, okay?

And never forget Lincoln’s melancholy, and the greatness he was able to achieve. No reason why you can’t, as well.

  • OptimisticbutConfused September 1, 2012, 2:51 am

    Hi Bill, 

    This article has been very relieving to me-in a way that you possibly couldn’t understand, but amazing that you actually do. 
    I’ve been trying to “force” myself to get better with anxiety, sometimes labeling “insert day”  as the final day that all my symptoms of anxiety will go away–only to be disappointed again and again. This is a negative habit I presume?
    Fortunately, I’ve changed my goal to instead get better with each passing day, rather than have my symptoms completely go away in one day. (Is this a positive technique?)
    I noticed you mentioned that 11/3/84 was the day that you became sober. My question is: 
    How did you know that was the day? Did you wake up that morning and everything was magically alright? Or if it was a gradual change…how did you know that 11/3/84 was the day?  I’m trying to learn about the recovery process a bit more.

     I’m just so eager to get 100% better haha….
    I appreciate the help!

    • chipur September 2, 2012, 6:27 pm

      Hi ObC!

      Thank you so much for your comment. Regarding your “negative habit”: Go easy on yourself, as there’s nothing wrong with wishing and hoping for that glorious day when the anxiety all goes bye-bye. Lord knows I’ve been there. I like your revised goal very much – more realistic, and certainly not self-defeating. Though I’m always striving to place anxiety in the rear-view mirror, I’ve come to a measure of acceptance. All I’m saying is I accept the fact that I will always lean toward the anxious – in my case it’s genetics and early environment. So for me, anyway, it’s about management – and it really has provided a significant amount of comfort and sanity.

      11/3/84: That’s the date of my last drink. So let’s say physically sober, though one always runs the risk of falling into a “dry drunk.” It was immediately “magically alright” in that I no longer drank, but it became a lot more alright as I worked on internal dynamics.

      I appreciate your sharing and enthusiasm so much. Keep after that 100% better day by day (but cut yourself a bit of slack along the way, okay?)


      • Optimistic/Slightly Confused September 2, 2012, 10:03 pm

        Thanks for the reply Bill!

        I guess what I was asking about the “magical day” is like: when did you know you had recovered? Was it complete, 100%? and did you just stop thinking about your condition?

        I’m amazed that such a recovery is possible after so many decades, like you mentioned, when anxiety/stress/depression, etc. seem like they would be a part of your identity and thus be all the more difficult to discard.

        Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I am relatively young (in my late teens), and I have never, ever, had to deal with mental issues before. I ‘m planning to talk to a psychotherapist soon, but as you can see, these questions have just been unresolved in my mind and seek relief!

      • chipur September 3, 2012, 5:47 pm

        O/SC (changed your name on me, huh?)…
        Okay, here’s the reality of it all – there was no “magical day.” Now, don’t let that rain on your parade, okay? I guess I’m saying I don’t know that “recovered” is the best word to use. I know it sounds cliche, but how ’bout we go with “recovering?” Like anything else, it’s a process. I mean you get to a point where you know for sure you’re feeling a whole lot better – and then you continue to work on your situation and take great joy in feeling all the better day by day. Does that make sense to you? To this day I think about my condition, ’cause like I said, I’ll always lean toward the anxious and moody. But when I think about it these days, it’s about management v. crisis, alarm, and hell. Big diff! Part of my identity still? Sure it is. How could it not be, given the number of years we spent together?

  • Patricia Miller September 19, 2012, 2:29 pm

    This is a very powerful article. Thank you for writing it. There is so much hope in this article and in the life of Abraham Lincoln.

    • chipur September 19, 2012, 4:53 pm

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Patricia. Abraham Lincoln was a great man – one of those people I’d love “to be stuck on a desert island with.” What stories he could (and would) tell…