Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
--William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)
My husband and I saw the film Invictus New Year’s Eve day. At the end of the film, the full-house audience stayed seated until the screen turned black. I like to think everyone was thinking about the message of the story or their memories of the time when apartheid was in full force, not only in South Africa, but here. Or maybe they were thinking how inequality still exists here at home with those who don’t look like us. I hope formulating their intention to change things kept people in their seats.
The poem “Invictus” hung on my classroom wall all my years of teaching, not only as inspiration to the students who may have read it but also for myself. Facing daily adversities requires something a person can grab hold of for strength, and this poem was my reminder that no matter what was done to or around me, I alone governed how I reacted. While we cannot control what is done to us, we are in control of how we respond. This lesson is not easy to learn, taking me at least 55 years before I REALLY got it.
Viewing this film also took me back to the school year of 1979-1980 when one of my students was a foreign exchange student from South Africa. Les was a good-looking, swarthy, sturdily-built lad and much in demand on the football field. In class, he did his assignments and was socially appropriate. He seemed so nice, I wanted to know why he embraced apartheid. Finally, the time came when I could ask him, when my asking would not embarrass him.
How could a class of whites who appeared to be well-educated as his father was, for example, continue this racist division I asked him. I wasn’t making comparisons between his country and ours, I assured him, but I wanted to understand. When you know a thing is wrong, why do you keep doing it?
“If we do not keep separate,” he told me,” they will overrun us. They are many and we are few. They will destroy us. We will not have the country we know. Everything we worked for will be gone. I don’t harbor them any ill will. Most people don’t. It’s just better this way.”
I thanked him for answering me honestly. I didn’t debate the issue out of respect for that honesty. Besides, my argument would change nothing he'd been taught. Only he could make that change happen. But I understood.
Fear, then. Fear keeps us choosing to do the wrong thing. Later, after much reading of enlightened authors and my own life experiences, I learned we do what we do for two reasons. Our choices always boil down to these two reasons: fear or love. Always.
So when I saw Invictus, I thought about Les and wondered how he’d fared in the last 30 years through all the changes in his homeland. I wondered if he has become the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. I wondered if he has changed. I wondered if now he bases his actions on love.
I also wondered this: what in some of us make us rise above the torment we endure to become the master of our fates, our own captains? What in us gives us the strength we need, the self-respect we need to endure, persevere, and prosper in the ways that matter? That's a question I've asked for years and I still don't know the answer.
But now I have decided on a name for that quality. I'm going to call it "The Invictus Syndrome."