My son just finished 7th grade. At the closing ceremony, his class recited this classic poem:
–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.
“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquered.” In our lives there are these things that I call “circumstances.” They are all around us. They include the weather, our house, our family, the way other people act, the color of the traffic light, whether others keep their word, how much money we have, whether something goes our way or not. Some circumstances seem so powerful, so daunting. This poem is such a beautiful statement of a choice to be unconquerable “under the bludgeonings of chance.”
But to me it is more about accountability. The last lines are the most powerful to me – “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” It does not matter what happens to me. I get to choose. I get to choose my reaction to the circumstances and that is the BIG choice. For many, it is a leap to decide that circumstances do not control my fate, but I control my fate. I get to decide. If you read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, the author, who was imprisoned for some years in a concentration camp said that identifying a purpose in his life to feel positively about, and then immersing himself in imagining that outcome allowed him to choose his response to his circumstances, and ultimately to survive the camp and to thrive after he was released.
In my neuro-linguistics programming training, we learned this presupposition. It is apt and a powerful way to view one’s life:
We are all responsible for creating our own experience. Even when challenging events that we cannot control happen, we are responsible for our responses to these events. Typically, however, we have much more control than we think we have. Another way of stating the presupposition is this: we consistently create our own environment through our beliefs, filters, capabilities and behaviors.
This is the distinction between responding and reacting. A reaction is an unconscious behavior that is taken just because it is the behavior we are used to exhibiting in such a circumstance. An example is the behavior called “complaining” which is a behavior many people exhibit in reaction to a circumstance they don’t like. Response is, as Stephen Covey says, the pause button between stimulus and the action you choose to take. It is the place where you stop and ask, “what is the best action to take in this situation?” In this way, even in the face of daunting circumstances, we have the greatest opportunity to become the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.