Meriwether Lewis accomplished more to impact the history of this country than most of us ever will. He was more skilled, tougher, and more masculine than most of us. He could shoot better. He could endure more discomfort. He had more courage. He was more accomplished, respected, and connected. And he took his own life at age 35. His life and death carry lessons for men to this day.
I just finished reading Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose. While the book focuses heavily on the expedition led by Lewis and Clark, it’s really a biography of Lewis. It’s a great read that I encourage you to check out.
Lewis was from Virginia. He was raised as an outdoorsman and hunter from a young age. But, as a Virginian, he got an education and participated in the higher levels of society. Ultimately, he joined the Army, where he served until 1801. He left the army to become President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary, living with Jefferson in the Presidential Mansion.
When Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, he commissioned Lewis to create an expedition that would explore the territory and report back to him on the land, the plants, the animals, the Indian tribes, the waterways, and the trading opportunities. Lewis enlisted an old Army buddy, William Clark, as his co-leader.
The expedition, consisting of over 40 men, took nearly two and a half years and covered roughly 8,000 miles. During that time, Lewis participated and oversaw the hunting, cooking, ship-building, navigation over rivers, plains, and mountains, hiking, map-making, plant collection, animal collection, Indian negotiation, all the while pushing his men as far and as fast as possible, while protecting morale and the journals he created along the way.
He spent many nights cold and hungry. He had encounters with grizzly bears. He would hike mile after mile of new country, kill animals for food, help prepare the food, then take celestial measurements at night to establish the expedition’s location and map the territory. He was, by any definition, masculine. He exhibited the Masculine Virtues of Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor in abundance.
Thomas Jefferson described him this way:
“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves – with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.“
Courageous. Skilled. Disciplined. Honest. Knowledgeable. Faithful to the truth. A great leader. He was masculine, accomplished, and esteemed. And on the evening of October 10, 1809, at age 35, he took his pistol and shot himself twice. Why?
While we cannot know for sure, here’s what we do know. Depression ran in Lewis’s family. During his time living with Jefferson, the President observed that Lewis had a tendency to be “melancholy”. Biographer Stephen Ambrose suspects that Lewis was a manic-depressive, going from highly energetic bouts of “I can do anything” to low periods of “I can’t do anything”.
He was also prone to periods of heavy drinking. While he avoided heavy drinking out of necessity on the expedition, he partook heavily upon his return. He drank in good times, when every man wanted to buy him a drink or give him a toast for his accomplishments. And he drank in bad times, when he couldn’t get his trading company off the ground, couldn’t find a woman to marry him, and found himself deeply in debt.
Depression. Alcohol use. Debt. These three things, perhaps not alone, led one of the most masculine and accomplished men in history to end his life. If you think you’re immune, you’re kidding yourself.
Depression. It’s more than being sad. It’s a darkness that you see no escape from. It’s a hopelessness. It’s that feeling of “I can’t do anything” accompanied by an overwhelming fatigue brought on by the thought of trying.
Alcohol use. If you’re drinking to escape from your life, you have a problem. Period. And that problem will have consequences. Perhaps not suicide. Perhaps health problems. Perhaps feeling like shit every day because you don’t sleep well. Perhaps weight gain because you eat too much when you drink. Perhaps divorce. Perhaps domestic abuse. Perhaps lost relationships with your kids. You may manage for a while, but all bills come due.
Debt. It’s one of the leading causes of divorce. And nothing eats at a man’s psyche more than not being able to pay his bills or provide the kind of life he wants for his family. It’s emasculating. And men take their lives over it.
If you struggle with any of these areas, change is in order. Perhaps professional help is needed. At the very least, you need to have a hard conversation with a friend where you admit you have a problem and need to make some changes.
I’m sure you’re a strong, tough dude. I’m also sure you’re not stronger or tougher than the man who led an 8,000-mile expedition over the wildest parts of our country. If life is hard enough to get him down, it’s hard enough to get you down.
There’s no shame in struggling with any of these things. None of us will ever navigate life perfectly. The shame is in getting stuck and staying there because you’re not willing to face your problem. Call a friend. Get together. Tell him you’re stuck. He may not have the answers, but a burden shared goes a long way. That’s the man’s life. Godspeed.