Lincoln: The President Who “Swallowed His Shadow”

February 16, 2014 — Leave a comment

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The Before and After Photographs

The iconic before and after pictures of  President Abraham Lincoln are legendary; the transformation is striking.  For many observers, there is something more going on in these pictures. This is what National Book Award winner, Robert Bly points out in his essays on the mythic nature of humanity.

The Red, White and Black Stages of Life

According to Bly, before his presidency, Lincoln was in his “white” phase: a man fully engaged in life, a father, a politician, and a social activist.

All true men have three stages of life: red, white and black. Women also have three stages but the colors are in a different sequence: white, red , and black.

For men, the white phase is engagement: white is for  fatherhood (the white of sperm), work (sweat and saliva)  and purpose. We remember that Saint George was riding a white horse and wearing white armor when he engaged the dragon. Engagement can be noble. Often this is the longest stage in a man’s life.

Black is death and its approach. The red phase is boyhood and teendom: savagery, blood-letting, taming the basic instincts.

Boys Who Do Not Leave The Red

Much has been discussed in the modern sociological field about modern young men  who never grow out of the red phase. Since they were never guided by fathers into balanced engagements, the boys become incomplete men, dying by each other’s hands in gang wars in an elongated red phase.  Today, they also perish in a living lethargy, inside the walls of  assaulting video games spilling digital red everywhere, living at home at age 35  as anemic Peter Pans.

The black period is the sage period where men slowly pull away from engagement to approach death.  Productively, they will consul the young and impart wisdom.  Many are grandfathers, great grandfathers, some become teachers in late-life career change.

Eating the Black

Then there are those remarkable people in the black stage who will ““eat their shadow” and become “other”.

It is turning to death and acknowledging it, and by doing so,  taking away the fear. When you face the monster, you remove its power, and there is no more running. Like Lincoln, you might become more witty, more joyous, more grateful. You have eaten the great mystery of death. People’s physical manifestation might even change as in the case of Lincoln. There was/is more going on in those photographs.

According to anthropologist, Joseph Campbell , we see this   successful swallowing or eating  of  death with many historical  world figures, especially spiritual leaders. Campbell maintains that we see it in the BuddhaGandhi,  Martin Luther King, Jr.  and Jesus , among others.

A Mother  Breaks Into Lincoln’s White House at 5 a.m.

A mother once broke into the White House and woke up Lincoln at five in the morning, saying that her son had been sent by train to Washington a few days before. Her son had had no sleep, had been assigned to guard duty upon arriving, had fallen asleep on the job, and now was going to be shot at eight that morning for his indiscretion.

If Lincoln had been in the red, he would have shouted at the guards, “Who let this woman in here?!”

If he had been in the white,  he might have said, “ Madam, we all have to obey the rules. Your son didn’t obey the rules and I feel as bad as you do about it as you do, but I can’t intervene.”

He didn’t say either of these things. He said, “Well, I guess shooting him wouldn’t help him much,” and he signed the piece of paper, pardoning her son.

In story after story in the last dark days of his life, Lincoln demonstrates both humor and forgiveness.  He was also did not cast blame. The Black stage is not defined by age alone; but there is a certain understanding, according to psychologist, Carl Jung, that death is imminent, even if the participant in the stage is still a young man or woman.

 Women Have A Different Evolution

Women move from a white stage of innocence (the white confirmation gown)  into a red phase of engagement. This happens with the first blood of menstruation , according to Bruno Bettelheim in his ground-breaking book, The Uses of Enchantment.   Snow White  is launched into engagement when her mother bleeds from the needle prick on her finger.  Red Riding Hood puts on the red hooded jacket  before she goes out into the wood to engage with the big bad wolf. Red is the color of female involvement. As for men with white, red is generally the longest stage in a woman’s life.

In the end, women face the same final stage of black, like all men do.

Classic women who might be termed becoming transformed  by facing down death would include such great mythic models as Helen Keller, Mother Theresa, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Three Horses

In life, each of us is given three  colored horses that we ride at various times. Often, we fall. We get back on the horse. Sometimes, we fall and are broken by that horse. The trick is to be conscious of the beauty in each of those horses and ride with them.

Happy Presidents Day!

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