Abraham Lincoln is a legend. He is known for being a wise, steadfast, and visionary leader who moved the United States through the Civil War and out of slavery. But that is certainly not how he was known during his lifetime. He was perceived by many as waffling, inexperienced, and a failure.
Lincoln faced repeated setbacks and discouragement. He was dirt poor growing up and at times he had to forego even the most basic comforts. He struggled to succeed in business early on, and then lost election after election in politics. He lost more elections than he won before he became President, and he was largely unknown and unproven as a national politician.
He also made a lot of mistakes. He was less of a visionary leader who pushed the country ahead into new territory and more of a reactor to the circumstances that were thrust upon him. The Civil War happened to him. It was a forgone conclusion before he was sworn into office. The decision to free the slaves was an arduous and difficult one for him ultimately driven by a desire to recruit more men for battle than out of philosophical or visionary zeal. His plan for solving the slavery problem was to colonize slaves in Central America. He did not believe slaves were intellectually, morally, or culturally equal to their white masters. He was a flawed president who was trying to do the best he could. As Lincoln himself commented, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” But isn’t that true of you and me too?
No one wins every battle and we all make lots of mistakes. The difference between Lincoln and most of us is that we give up. What Abe had, and what we all need, was perseverance and integrity. When life gets hard, really hard, we are tempted to give up or compromise our character to get ahead or get out of our struggle. We quit on jobs, relationships, and God if things don’t go well for us. We give up playing by the rules and rationalize cheating because we’ve got it hard.
Lincoln is remembered as a hero of American politics because he never compromised and he never gave up. He isn’t remembered for knowing everything or always doing things right. He is remembered for being honest. He is remembered for persevering and leading the country through tremendous hardship. He is remembered as a legend because of how he responded to pain not because he avoided it.
We do not get to choose what difficulties befall us, but we can choose how we respond. We can choose to take shortcuts out of our difficulties by giving up or compromising our character, or we can persevere and become legends. One doesn’t become great because life is easy and things go well. We become great when we respond well to resistance and persevere through our problems. If we avoid hardships, we miss out on our opportunity for greatness. Maybe that’s why Merton said,
“Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.”