Just over two years ago I happened to be in Johannesburg with my family at the time Nelson Mandela passed away. As outsiders looking in, we felt that it was an amazing privilege to hear so many stories of the difference Mandela made in South Africa, preventing a civil war by his message of reconciliation. We joined the crowds who streamed for days to pay tribute at his home, and we reflected on the impact that one man can make.
It’s said that during his incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela would recite William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus (1888) to his prison mates. It’s a stirring call to stoical grit and determination in the face of life’s hardships.
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.
I defy anyone to read lines like ‘my unconquerable soul’ and not feel something like a gut-level growl to be a better person, to do more, to rise higher, and to face the challenges of life with more dignity and determination. We want to feel triumphant in life. It is part of our very human effort to justify our existence, to bolster our self-esteem, to feel a sense of our own worth.
And yet, I think that if we’re honest most of us will admit that this poem is mostly wishful thinking. ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’ But I still overslept this morning. I got irritated with my partner. I’m behind on my project at work. I disappoint myself on a daily basis. In that sense, the triumphant ideal of Invictus is not true to experience. And nor is it true to fact.
I didn’t choose most of the circumstances in which my life has been shaped: my parents, my culture, my influences. How can it be truly said that ‘I am the captain of my soul’ when, in reality, I didn’t even choose to get in this boat?
The idea (myth?) that you rule your own life can only lead to one of two possible outcomes. Either you will achieve all you dream of, and become one of those unbearable Trump-esque characters who cannot see their own flaws. Or you will be crushed under the weight of your own failures, realising that you’re not all you’re cracked up to be, and life is mostly out of your control.
Few people realise that Jesus Christ was relentlessly critical of people who thought they could make something of themselves. He saw this as a kind of pride, and worse, a pride that feeds self-righteousness and priggery. In many ways Invictus is the polar opposite of what Jesus taught.
Instead of encouraging us to get a grip and learn self-mastery, Jesus promised that there was grace and mercy for those who see that they are failing at life, that they are emphatically not the masters of their fate, or captains of their souls. He put it like this: ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.’ In other words, Jesus tells us that it’s okay to feel that things are not all right, that you don’t have it all together. He came for the very purpose of helping people who know their weaknesses.