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  • Writer's pictureRyan Luby

A strongly worded letter

There’s a trend of attributing every great quote, interesting fact, and noble story to Abraham Lincoln even when it isn’t true.

But the more you learn about Lincoln the more you understand why no one is bothered by giving Lincoln all the praise, he turns out to be a pretty impressive character who deserves a lot of praise.

This is another story that might have been built up over the years as we continue looking back at everything Lincoln did with rose colored glasses… but again, it’s ok because the lesson is far too valuable for anyone to care too much about the details.

In doing research for his book titled Lincoln the Unknown, Dale Carnegie came across a letter Lincoln wrote to a general who disobeyed his orders during the Civil War. Here is a part of that letter,

"I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasureably because of it."

Without knowing too much of the details, it’s still obvious Lincoln was frustrated and he very clearly, and aggressively wrote his frustrations in detail. The interesting part of this is, Lincoln never sent the letter.

There is some speculation as to why, but over time we have come to believe this was an intentional practice Lincoln would use.

Maybe if he had the luxury of twitter or facebook Lincoln would have made some harsh remarks public more often.. but he didn’t.. Instead he would write down whatever was bothering him in a letter as soon as possible, often addressed to someone if it pertained to them. And in doing so, he would learn that his first draft was always just a reaction. It was always to emotional. It was never how he really felt when given the time to think. So he wouldn’t send it.

What does this mean:

The point is, you are often most angry right when something happens. And the solution is never to pretend like nothing effects you all the time, you should air out your thoughts, feelings, and frustrations but you need to do this in a way that doesn’t affect others. Lincoln mastered this by still sharing his frustrations and even making them more detailed in a long-form letter, but he understood this practice was most important as a decompressing act for himself, while keeping in mind sending those letters would not solve or help anything. Especially sending those letters at the time when he was most upset.

More often than not we react immediately when something affects us, where if we just hesitated we would likely be able to think more rationally and diffuse situations rather than stoking the fire with emotional reactions. If someone intentionally starts your house on fire, standing their screaming at that person does no good… you need to first put out the fire before any progress can take place.

Primum non nocere. This phrase may mean nothing to you right now, but I encourage you to repeat it to yourself over and over throughout your life. Primum non nocere is a Latin phrase meaning “First, do no harm” which is suggested in a part of the Hippocratic Oath that every Physician must take. This does not only pertain to healthcare.. it applies to everything in life. Lincoln practiced this in his own life when he would write his very emotionally drafted letters. He did so to air out his frustrations, but he never forget that his goal was still to first do no harm. Give your emotions and your reactions their place, but do not put them on others until you have consciously thought of a way to bring them up in a more logical and rational way. Primum non nocere: First do no harm.

How to practice this:

Be patient.

Time and time again when we are really frustrated by something, it is often because that something just happened. If we waited a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks to just think before reacting we would often either forget about whatever happened, or at least be able to approach things from a much more rational perspective. Don’t give in to the impulse to be so reactive, focus more on being patient and thoughtful. Don’t send the tweet, text, don’t scream, don’t do whatever impulsive reaction you feel completed to.. there are enough people doing this already, practice being one of the few to just observe.

Sometimes when we feel this frustration, or anger come over us it is because something struck a nerve. This is even more reason to just wait. When we get upset it’s just too easy to be careless and say something or do something we regret. Take the time to think about why whatever is going on bothered you so much? Be thankful whatever happened came up, and gave you the time to work on something that is clearly bothering you in some way even if you didn’t realize it.

Last, copy Lincoln specifically. You can take advantage of technology and use the memo feature on your phone, or voice to text for notes, or handwrite a letter. The more frustrated you are, the more quickly you need to get your draft down on paper. Practice some restraint from being reactive to others, but hold nothing back in your strongly worded letter. Be specific about what is bothering you, what happened, who pissed you off, and why. Write as much as you possibly can, and then.. unlike Lincoln, don’t keep this letter. Crumble it up and throw it away.

Think it sounds silly?

Not only is it a great lesson from Lincoln, a very similar practice was studied in 2012 to see how “throwing away” your negative thoughts helped you get over them.

Students were asked to write down their negative thoughts, emotions, etc on a piece of paper. Half the students were asked to keep the paper, while half the students were told to crumble up the paper and physically throw it away. Next the students were asked to fill out a short survey rating their overall attitudes. The findings showed the students who still had their papers showed their survey scores were affected by what they wrote on the paper, while the students who threw out their papers were not affected by what they wrote when taking the survey.

When you feel the need to react, keep in mind Primum non nocere - First do no harm.

Be patient and document on paper specifically what is going on, and how you are feeling.

You don’t even need to read your first draft, when you got everything you can out and on paper,

Crumble it up, throw it away, and when you’re ready you start finding solutions instead stoking the emotional reaction fire.

Learn more on this:

Article: Inc on Lincoln’s method

Study: Clear negative thoughts

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