In a moment of alluring synchronicity, this week has seen the debacle of Trump mangling the task of consoling another human being for the loss of her husband in war - with his abject failure prompting blistering comparisons to the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln as he confronted the same task - and the awarding of the Man Booker Prize to George Saunders' first novel "Lincoln In the Bardo," which evokes the great man similarly struggling with the death of his young son amidst a multitude of war deaths all around him. As Trump continues to do battle with truth and decency in his unseemly feud over the death of La David Johnson, several observers have helpfully unearthed condolence letters by Lincoln to show our once and future clown how it's done.
In evidently his first such letter of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote in May 1861 to the parents of a son lost in the war; in "the untimely loss of your noble son," he wrote, "our affliction here is scarcely less than your own." In 1864, he wrote an iconic letter read in the opening of "Saving Private Ryan," whose plot mirrors the plight of a mother thought to have lost all five of her sons to the war. Admitting "how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine," Lincoln wrote, "I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation (in) the thanks of the Republic they died to save." In an 1862 letter cited by Rachel Maddow via historian Michael Beschloss, Lincoln wrote "with deep grief" to the daughter of a "kind and brave father" who'd died. "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all," he wrote. "To the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares." Still, he assures her of a future when "you are sure to be happy again" and "the memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart."
Tellingly, he also notes, "I have had experience enough to know what I say." The timing here is key: Lincoln wrote it shortly after the death of his 11-year-old son Willie - the second of three sons the Lincolns lost, and the event that inspired Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo." A master of the dark, dystopian, bitterly funny short story, Saunders re-invents the reported real late-night visit by a grieving Lincoln to the grave of his son, who is trapped with other spirits in the Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist limbo between life and death. Written mostly in dialogue - sometimes tough sledding, even for the fans among us - the book is essentially "an exploration of empathy." Neither the spirits, nor Willie, nor Lincoln can admit they're dead; it's when they all do - “My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!” - they can move on, and find peace. The book ends with Lincoln leaving the cemetery after a long anguished night: He has accepted the death of his son; he is "reduced, ruined, remade."
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."