The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 6: Sections i-vii "A Fearful Gift."

Here in Part 3 of The Theology of Peanuts we turn to the positive notes and salvation motifs of Peanuts.

In this chapter we explore wisdom, the convergence of Peanuts with the teachings of Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes ("ecclesiastes" is the Latin transcription of the Hebrew "Qoheleth," which is typically translated as "teacher" or "preacher").

And this the world calls frenzy; but the wise
Have a far deeper madness, and the glance
Of melancholy is a fearful gift;
What is it but the telescope of truth?
Which strips the distance of its fantasies,
And brings life near in utter nakedness,
Making the cold reality too real!

--from Byron's "The Dream"

As Byron observes, the ancients had a complex view of melancholy. Byron calls it "a fearful gift." As can be seen in Byron's poem, melancholy is a "telescope of truth," enabling us to see reality clearly and honestly. As Byron writes in his play Manfred:

Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth.

Sorrow is Knowledge. These sentiments echo so clearly the wisdom of Qoheleth:

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.

Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

The gifts of melancholia have largely been lost. Modern America is addicted to happiness. Melancholy, moroseness, and gloominess are a disease. People in such a state should "cheer up." Don't worry, be happy.

But there is a price we pay for this willful optimism. We lose depth, perspective, and realism. Further, a refusal to work through melancholy often means that we fail to develop the internal and spiritual resources needed to deal with pain and tragedy. We cannot suffer well without such prior training. Our youth understand medication and therapy but they have little understanding of what it means to face life, as they used to say, philosophically.

A brilliant case study of the "fearful gift" is the recent book by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

As you may or may not know, Lincoln suffered from chronic depression. In his young adulthood Lincoln went through multiple suicidal episodes where his friends had to keep him from sharp objects. As Lincoln's colleague Henry Whitney said, "No element of Mr. Lincoln's character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy." (1) Lincoln's law partner William Herndon said, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked." (1)

Later in life, after years of struggling with depression, Lincoln developed internal resources to cope with his bouts of melancholy. In the years before anti-depressant medication and talk therapy one had to turn to religion, philosophy, company, music, work, and poetry.

Poetry as therapy was central to Lincoln's coping. As Shenk writes, Lincoln "gave voice to his melancholy, reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. These strategies offered him relief, sustenance, and a movement to wisdom." (2) At night Lincoln "would go to his room, strip off his coat, lie down on the bed, and read [poetry] by the light of a candle." (3) Beyond poetry, Lincoln also sought comfort in literature. A friend recalled that Lincoln loved Poe "because it was gloomy." (3) He read and re-read Shakespeare's tragedies. Lincoln said of Macbeth, "I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful." (3)

One of Lincoln's favorite poems was written by William Knox, a Scotsman. The poem consciously follows the sentiments of Ecclesiastes. Shenk shares one of the stories that has come down to us about Lincoln and this poem.

The story comes from the fall of 1849. Lois Newhall was a singer in the Newhall family troupe. The troupe was traveling and performing that fall in central Illinois. One evening at a hotel the Newhall troupe encountered three traveling politicans doing work in the same area. One of the politicians was Lincoln. For the next week the Newhall troupe and the politicians traveled the same road visiting the same towns each day. The politicans would come to listen to the troupe perform and the troupe would come to hear the politican's speeches.

On the last day before their paths would diverge the troupe and the politicians gathered for a night of singing. Eventually, one of Lincoln's colleagues called for Lincoln to sing, mainly as a joke to embarrass Lincoln. But Lois Newhall was intrigued and asked Lincoln to sing. Lincoln, upset at being made fun of, turned to go. Lois pleaded and offered to accompany Lincoln on the melodeon. But Lincoln declined, "Why, Miss Newhall, if it was to save my soul from hell, I couldn't imitate a note that you would touch on that. I never sung in my life and never was able to. Those fellows are simply liars."

Shenk picks up the story: "The room grew quiet. Lincoln was near the door that led to the stairwell, but he didn't leave. 'I'll tell you what I'll do for you,' he said after a pause, 'You girls have been so kind singing for us. I'll repeat to you my favorite poem.' Leaning against the doorjamb, which looked small behind his lanky frame, and with eyes half closed, Lincoln recited a poem from memory." (4)

Here are the first two stanzas of Knox's poem:

O[h] why should the spirit of mortal be pround!
Like a swift, fleeting meteor--a fast-flying cload--
A flash of the lighting--a break of the wave--
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high
Shall molder to dust and together shall lie.

The last two stanzas of the poem were Lincoln's favorites:

Yea! Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain;
And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

'Tis the wink of an eye, 'tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

Shenk continues the story: "When Lincoln finished, the room was still. 'I know that for myself,' recalled Lois Newhall, 'I was so impressed with the poem that I felt more like crying than talking.' She asked, 'Mr. Lincoln, who wrote that?' He told her that he didn't know, but that if she'd like, he would write out a copy of the poem for her. She was eating pancakes the next morning when she felt something behind her. A great big hand came around her left side and covered hers. Then, with his other hand, Lincoln laid a long piece of blue paper beside her." (4)

This anecdote from Lincoln reminds me of Bobby Kennedy who found wisdom and courage in the wake of his brother's assassination from poetry. During his fated run for the Democratic nomination Bobby often quoted these words from the greek poet and playwright Aeschylus:

He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep
pain that cannot forget
falls, drop by drop, upon the heart,
and in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom to us
by the awful grace of God.

He who learns must suffer. Sorrow is Knowledge. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. Melancholy is a fearful gift.

What is this gift?

It is a gift of compassion, endurance, perspective, and humility. As Shenk notes, Lincoln was deeply engaged with the book of Job in 1863 when he penned the healing words of the Gettysburg address. It was due to his deep personal aquaintance with suffering that enabled Lincoln to declare the following words at the end of the war: "With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God give us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations." These are unusually compassionate and conciliatory words for a victorious Commander in Chief. Lincoln's melancholy so attuned him to suffering that he was able utter words that healed a nation.

But beyond compassion there is also humility. After Lincoln's death a fragment of his writing was found. It was a theological reflection upon the Civil War. The fragment is known to us as The Meditation on the Divine Will:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Two aspects of the Meditation are striking. First is the phrase both may be, and one must be, wrong. There is a deep humility here. Lincoln is willing to admit that even he may be wrong. Again, it is a profound act of humility for a Commander in Chief to articulate such a sentiment during a time of war when the world is largely carved into Black and White, Good and Evil, and Right versus Wrong. In short, Lincoln does not claim that God is on his side. This is an astounding spiritual accomplishment, a testament to Lincoln's greatness.

Second, the suffering of the war began to convince Lincoln that both the North and the South were being punished by God. The North cannot so easily blame the South. This led Lincoln to argue in his second Inaugural Address that both the North and the South were complicit in slavery. The sin was a national sin. Again, this was an astonishing admission given the pain Lincoln endured fighting the South.

This kind of humility was a product of Lincoln's lifelong struggles with melancholy. As Shenk writes, "Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy, we [can see that Lincoln] was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When times were hard, he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension." (5)

Is Peanuts funny? We began this book with that question. The answer is surprising in that Peanuts, as we have discovered, is a melancholy strip. The world of Peanuts is built around the melancholy of Charlie Brown. On first blush, this seems depressing and somewhat sick. But that reaction is a product of our hyper-happy culture. We can rest assured the Lincoln would have loved Charlie Brown. Peanuts, in its honesty and realism, brings us Byron's fearful gift and the wisdom of Qoheleth.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

It should perhaps come as no surprise that the gloom of Peanuts reflected the dysphoria of its creator. Like Lincoln, Charles Schulz suffered from chronic depression his entire life. Driving away from his wedding, Charles Schulz turned to his bride and said, "I don't think I can ever be happy." (6) The comic strip reflected the man.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

Peanuts can be sad and melancholy. But it was the melancholy running through Peanuts that made Peanuts wildly popular in the 1960s when the strip was "discovered" by the larger American public. The sadness of Charlie Brown gave the strip emotional authenticity. People identified with the strip. Peanuts was real. And because Peanuts was real it allowed a generation to confront the truths that Lincoln confronted late at night as he read his poetry by candlelight.

Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books

(1) p. 4 Lincoln's Melancholy
(2) p. 113 Ibid
(3) p. 119 Ibid
(4) p. 119-121 Ibid
(5) p. 200 Ibid
(6) p. 234 Schulz and Peanuts

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12 thoughts on “The Theology of Peanuts, Chapter 6: Sections i-vii "A Fearful Gift."”

  1. Richard,

    Reminds me of Byron's lines from "Don Juan": "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep." Outstanding post, more about which later.


    George C.

  2. I was flattened by major depression for years. My entire life's plan came to pieces; I spent 2004 in bed.

    That said, I'm thankful it happened. Depression was the school in which I learned compassion.

  3. I've found that depression caused me to reevaluate my inherited belief system. Sometimes difficult times come because of these social constructs that we are raised with and sometimes our tough experiences are made more difficult by having problems plus social pressure to handle them in certain ways and find certain meanings in them.
    An example is Lincoln. A lesser personality would have either sang a tune he was goaded into or would have felt bad about being different in not wanting to sing. Instead, he acted on his terms and quoted a poem of his choosing.
    That's the way I want to be. Define meaning for myself. Define purpose for myself. It's my life and I derive no pleasure in using another's world view for my own.

  4. I also want to clarify that I'm not trying to glorify depression. It's a terrible thing. The point of the post is to note that people who move through depression tend to have perspectives and impulses (like sensitivity toward suffering) that chronically happy people do not.

    This also makes we wonder if the plight of depressed persons might be lifted a bit if we consistently elevated them as persons with something only they can contribute. For example, why ask all the happy extraverted people how a church is functioning? Why not seek out the depressives in the church? The research says that the depressives will give you more realistic and honest answers.

  5. Richard, others,

    The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus "learned obedience through what he suffered. . . ."
    Contained in the idea of obedience are compassion, community, lament, and realism regarding the frailty of the human condition.

    Suffering is not to be sought out and no one wants to be trapped in it. But it does focus our attention if it is bearable. When suffering is dark (as in the "dark night of the soul" experience) all we may have to cling to is courage in suffering.

    More later.


    George C.

  6. Thanks for the very nice post, Richard.

    (Incidentally, I think I read somewhere (I believe on-line) that Lincoln was a universalist, and was largely moved by the same verse that I think is the best for this: Rom. 5:18.)

  7. As I sat down to read the comments of this interesting post I have been informed that a great friend and mother figure of my wife and I has been diagnosed with leukemia. These next few months will be hard and much processing of feelings will be required.
    Yesterday I wrote that I think some inherited world views can be detrimental to some in that they add to the degree of difficulty in dealing with tough times and distract from the real situation by substituting pabulum for the wisdom and experience to be gained. I certainly did not expect to face this at this time but I know what I must do.
    During this time I simply want to be present and give support where needed. It’s not about me or my understanding of the reason for this illness, if there is a reason at all. I don’t need someone telling me it’s all for the good, we just don’t know the ways of God. I’m not interested in rationalizing an illness. I don’t need to entertain thoughts like “why is this happening or why did God let that happen”. I even caught myself wondering why she didn’t go to the doctor earlier so that this could have been avoided. I don’t want to be making up stories to help sooth the pain and death anxiety. The most important thing for me is to be emotionally present for and supportive of everyone involved.
    This is where I think those who make it through depression or sadness can exhibit grace and compassion. They allow themselves to feel and to be present and not explain it away. If I put it in terms of a narrative of why and how this is happening then I do not gain wisdom or compassion but I am simply using these made up stories to make the pain subside. When others experience difficulties then I am in no position to understand or help because I have not allowed myself to feel and process the pain myself.
    As it goes, I feel sad that a wonderful life will be shortened. I am sad that my wife will not have a mother figure with whom to share life’s ups and downs. I will try to stay out of my head and stay in my heart. I will just let myself be sad for a while and be as supportive and loving as I can be. That’s my intent.
    Rick T.

  8. Hi Rick,
    During this time I simply want to be present...

    As you were writing these words I was writing the new post. And it looks like we were saying much the same thing: We have today, be in the moment. But your comment coming out of the sadness in your family takes it deeper: We do this FOR each other.

  9. Regarding this from my earlier comment --

    Incidentally, I think I read somewhere (I believe on-line) that Lincoln was a universalist, and was largely moved by the same verse that I think is the best for this: Rom. 5:18.

    -- I just checked William J. Wolf's The Religion of Abraham Lincoln out of the library, and it confirms my recollection that Lincoln was a universalist, but I was wrong about Lincoln's favorite verse for this, which appears to actually have been I Corinthians 15:22.

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