11/27/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2013

Lessons From Lincoln : See the Big Picture

Like a lot of the country, my wife Amy and I went to Lincoln over the Thanksgiving holiday. We were with Amy's family in Washington, D.C., and walking out of theater to see our nation's capital in all its glory -- leaves changing, kids playing football -- I felt overwhelmed with gratitude to live in this country. Yes, we have so many problems, we're so divided, yada yada. But the fact is, it wasn't all that long ago that we were slaughtering each other in the hundreds of thousands because more than half the country still wanted to own slaves. It wasn't that long ago that women and African Americans couldn't vote. And look at us now: We just elected an African American for a second term and more and more states are allowing same-sex couples to wed.

Granted, there are a lot of people who are angry about that -- who fear equality will take away their comforts -- but that is how it always has been. And at least we are settling those differences democratically now. During the holidays, it's easy to get down about the state of politics and the economy, but this is also the best time to take a step back and look at the big picture -- the view from above. Though it may not feel like it if you turn on the news, we are evolving as a nation.

The big picture is as useful for the personal as the political, another lesson of Lincoln. The film follows Lincoln's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. When Lincoln decided to attempt to pass the amendment, he was beginning his second term and enjoying unprecedented popularity with both parties. He knew that trying to abolish slavery would end that popularity, that he would be ridiculed and perhaps even killed. He also knew that it would be near impossible to get the 2/3 majority needed in the House of Representatives. Again and again, you see Lincoln's friends and advisers telling him that trying to pass the amendment is political suicide, that he'll never be able to achieve anything else once he fails. Lincoln listens to their often very realistic advice, but he repeatedly rises above the petty details and looks at the issue as if from a heavenly perch -- as if he can see himself in the vast stretch of history.

Not one of us will know the pressure that Lincoln did, but the lesson of taking a bird's eye view on our lives is priceless for overcoming fear and anxiety -- no matter how small the issue is. Think of how much time we spend every day caught up in anxiety about little details that don't matter in the big scheme: Did you say the right thing at that dinner party the other night? Should you call her back before she calls you? Should you delete that photo on Facebook?

It's not that the details don't matter, it's that we give them an unnecessary amount of power that allows our stress response to misfire, wearing down our immune systems and making us unnecessarily sick with anxiety. And when we're sick or worn down, it feels nearly impossible to surmount even small obstacles, to live up to our potential, to be brave.

I'm as prone to stressing about petty details as anyone, but when I'm able, in the midst of the anxiety, to remember to pop out and look at my life in the grand sweep of the universe, the stressful details become like thousands of little twigs floating down the rapids. It's impossible and even dangerous to worry about each twig. I have to focus on the general direction of my canoe, evading the big boulders and logs. If I don't prioritize, I'll capsize before coming close to my destination. But more importantly, I won't even enjoy the ride.

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