By William Ernest Henley
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.
This poem is not precisely the Victorian paean to manly fortitude and stoicism that it is usually interpreted to be. It was a reaction to the writer’s struggle from the age of twelve with bone tuberculosis, a disease which resulted in his suffering painful medical treatments, including amputation of his lower left leg. He spent years in the hospital. Maybe that is why the poem resonates for prisoners like Nelson Mandela; it is certainly an ode to resistance and persistence.
But it also speaks about acceptance (which is quite the buzzword these days, along with “boundaries” and “sitting with”). Half of the poem speaks to reacting to adversity with equanimity; not giving in and not giving up. But to the adversities themselves, the random pain, suffering, and ultimate oblivion that is part of life, there is no argument. They are a given, and our behavior is all we can control.
Returning to Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius said that “[r]ather than saying ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me,’ you should say ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.’” Most good life philosophy tends towards similar conclusions. Buddha said “[a]ll experiences…are preceded by mind…, having mind as their master…created by mind….” Similarly, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is the idea that “how you think affects how you feel. If you can change your thoughts, you can come to change your emotions.”
We are confronted by situations we can’t control, but we do have a say in our choices. If there is any rock of hope it lies in our limited, but real, agency in our actions and interpretations. And that has to be enough.