Saunders has said he sees Lincoln’s character arc as moving from sorrow to empathy, as "a burning-away of his hopes and dreams that resulted in a kind of naked seeing of things as they really were." The burdens of office, from the war's losses and horrors to Willie's death, "seemed to expand the reach of his empathy" to ultimately include soldiers on both sides and those millions enslaved - ie all the "others" of Lincoln's world. At book events in this "strange time," he says, young people will ask if he would choose empathy or resistance; he sees them as the same "vigorous compassion." The question of the hour: “Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day." At book's end, one of the spirits is riding inside the exhausted Lincoln as he returns to the world.
"The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do...Perhaps in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It was hard. Hard for him. Hard for me...I resolved nevertheless to stay."