Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Lincoln: A History Lesson in Healthy Goals

How Lincoln embodied the spirit found in third-wave psychotherapies

Lincoln, the 2012 biographical (soon to be Academy Award nominated) drama of the 16th U.S. President, is all about goals. Obviously, as one of the most memorialized and mythologized figures in U.S. history the film could’ve cast a wide net in order to discuss any number of fascinating topics, such as Lincoln’s ascension from self-educated rags to omnipotent riches, the insidious grasp that grief and depression held on his psych and that of his beloved wife, or the almost unparalleled moments of transcendence he experienced as both a legislator and a leader.

But instead Lincoln is simply and fascinatingly about Lincoln’s commitment to a particular goal and all of the barriers that he surmounts on the path toward achieving it. The goal is, of course, the passage of the 13th Amendment, which was designed to kill slavery for all eternity in the U.S.

Steven Spielberg, the film’s prolific director zoomed in on this pursuit and, in so doing, we as an audience not only learned more about this historic outcome but we learned the precise ways in which this outcome was threatened and, ultimately, achieved.

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Before commenting further on Lincoln’s wonderfully healthy abilities in goal-identification, problem-solving and presenting a demeanor of effectiveness, it’s worth noting that this process that Lincoln embodied is critical to mental health and well-being. So critical is it, in fact, that many clinical practitioners and theorists recognize that having the right goal and effectively pursuing that goal as habits of daily life can make the difference between a happiness and intolerable misery. It’s why the most contemporary psychotherapies—Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, good old-fashioned Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—are all united by the fact that they teach unhealthy individuals to be healthy by instilling a goal-oriented inner mantra in which one is constantly asking oneself: what’s my goal in this moment? What am I doing to achieve this goal? Is it working? If not, what do I need to change?

To give a brief example of how this operates I’ll share that I was engaging with a client the other day who presents to therapy with difficulties capping his anger. He was describing a recent trip to the grocery store. His goal, it seemed, was to get food; a fairly straight-forward and necessary pursuit. As he prepared to pull into an open spot in the parking lot of the supermarket another driver swooped in at the last second and “stole” the spot. In the next moments of this event my anger management client proceeded to have anger management difficulties. He fumed. Now, it would have been perfectly fine to fume had he continued with his goal. He could’ve found another spot, entered the grocery store, gotten his food and fumed all along the way.  Get food while fuming is a less fun goal than just getting food but at least the initial objective is still achieved. However, this is not what happened. Instead, and without fully realizing it, my client chose to change course. He established a new goal that took priority, and this goal was to satiate his angry urges by directly expressing his anger and intimidating the parking spot thief. Unfortunately, as he hopped out of his still un-parked car and began screaming at the stranger he achieved a some new objectives—he perpetuated his outrage (nothing fuels the anger-fire like screaming), he increased his blood pressure, and he elicited the attention of a nearby police officer. He did many things, none of which were healthy and none of which included his initial goal of getting food.

This anger management anecdote provides a striking illustration of just how difficult healthy goal-oriented behavior can be. Even a goal as simple as getting food can be subverted within minutes by easily avoidable and completely self-imposed barriers.

In Lincoln, our heralded president has a slightly more complicated goal—pass the 13th Amendment. As the beautifully orchestrated film moves through the setup phase of the narrative we learn about some of the obstacles standing in the way of this pursuit.

To pass the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives (the final cut in the checks-and-balances process), Lincoln faced a daunting obstacle. What he needed to do was to have a two-thirds majority pass it, and that meant he had to align all members of his own party (At this point in time the Democratic Party was known as the Republicans Party) and convince a significant handful of the minority opposition to vote against their party line.  

In this case, each "barrier" to the goal was a member of the House of Representatives who had idiosyncratic and complex motives for the stated goal of voting down the 13th Amendment.

This blog will aim to be as systematic in outlining the variety of barriers as Lincoln was in overcoming them.

Barrier 1: Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens who wanted to abolish slavery but feared that the 13th Amendment didn’t go far enough in facilitating the emancipation process. This was an important barrier for Lincoln to overcome not only because Stevens was a potential "nay" vote from Lincoln’s own party but because Stevens’ passion for abolition paradoxically threatened to push away more moderate Democrats who were on the fence about the 13th Amendment. 

Barrier 2: Other fellow-Republicans like George Yeoman who wanted the 13th Amendment. because they wanted the end of slavery, but articulated the stated goal of voting "nay" because they feared the country was ill-equipped to effective handle the aftereffects of freedom.

Lincoln used compassion, active listening, identification of ‘common ground’ and a variety of interpersonally effective tools to relay the basic point to the Stevens and Yeoman factions of his party that they were allowing their commitment to the 13th Amendment goal to waver because of one of two ineffective approaches: Stevens was bogging the 13th Amendment-goal down in equally worthy but un-passable additional goals like reparations; and Yeoman was reacting to feared predictions about the consequences of the goal, which was pre-emptively derailing him from achieving the goal to begin with.

Barrier 3: Oppositional democrats whose primary goal was not to take a committed stance on the 13th Amendment vote but to advance a personal agenda of profit and self-interest.

Lincoln may’ve dedicated himself to a life of honesty, integrity and moral fortitude but that didn’t stop him from serving as a keen, committed student of both politics and human nature. As such, he knew how to play the game of backdoor dealings and arm-twists. He kept his distance and either had his wartime consigliere (Secretary of State William Seward), freelance political operatives (William N. Bilboe) or Representative Stevens provide promises of post-Congress patronage jobs, promotions and good old fashioned pork-barrel spending to those Democrats whose vote could be bought in the service of this larger goal.

Barrier 4: Oppositional democrats whose primary goal was to cling to a world of slavery.

The goal here was deceptive. It would not have been effective to try to convince those that could not be convinced. The trick was to identify and accept the fact that this specific subgroup of Democrats were “lost causes” and to ensure that their power was limited as much as possible. Lincoln’s approach here, in addition to maintaining a cordial and persistently open-minded manner toward his enemies, was to advocate restraint from Stevens and others who would’ve inflamed this immovable faction of the House into becoming more vocal and, perhaps, more powerful. Lincoln’s goal of accepting their resistance and limiting their power was the most effective route to take. It’s worth noting that Lincoln reached out to few of these “immovable” Democrats but his goal was not to debate them out of their opinion, it was to trigger a process of self-reflective values-identification in which they double-checked with themselves about their genuine motives and world vision.

As Lincoln overcame each of these barriers his significant psychological skillfulness surfaced. First, unlike Stevens, Yeoman and others, he recognized that passage of the 13th Amendment was the most plausible and important next step. He didn’t try to bite off more than he could chew, and he didn’t low ball himself. He pondered, evaluated, researched, and re-evaluated what his top priority should be given his values and the contextual forces operating in the current reality. And, he landed on abolishment of slavery as the top priority (i.e. he realized the Civil War would end soon regardless, and a state of full, national equality was important but not a plausible next-step), And once he realized this within himself he didn’t stray from this.

He kept his eye on the prize. Recall how easily my anger management client lost sight of his ‘get food’ goal. Well, imagine all the pressures that existed for Lincoln that threatened to derail him from his goal of 13th Amendment passage. For instance, as the film astutely explained, ending the Civil War and passing the 13th Amendment were, in fact, mutually exclusive and conflicting goals. Ending the War would’ve made passing the Amendment impossible. And yet the goal of ending the War was omnipresent and tantalizing. Had Lincoln switched tracks to pursue this alternative goal he would’ve instantly been adored by all, he would’ve ceased the ongoing bloodshed of hundreds of thousands of citizens whom he clearly loved and, moreover, he would’ve appeased his still-grieving wife and ensured the survival of his recently enlisted eldest son. He received tremendous pressure from all sides of his personal and professional life and yet he kept his eyes on the prize—a truly impressive feat of self-control and big-picture moral conviction.    

So, just to recap, he identified the appropriate goal—rule number one of healthy living (i.e. just as getting food was the appropriate goal for my anger management client versus getting into a fight). And he kept his eye on the prize - the second key element to achieving healthy goals (i.e. the minute my anger management client leapt out of his car he’d abandoned his goal), and Lincoln used a variety of problem-solving approaches in circumnavigating the wide-ranging barriers that emerged along the way (i.e. in this vein, my anger management could’ve self-regulated via a number of strategies like reducing physiological arousal through deep breathing, cognitively reframing the idea that he “owned” the spot that had just been “stolen” or  expressing his anger in more socially appropriate ways like honking).

Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just a great leader and an accomplished president; he was a model for how to set, pursue and achieve goals that underlie health living.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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