Master of our own fate
“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” —William Ernest Henley
These are the words that U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam, according to Admiral James Stockdale, passed around to each other to read and memorize, words written with rat droppings on toilet paper. They come from the poem anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, while imprisoned for 27 years, regularly recited.
Now, the rest of the story. William Ernest Henley, age 12, acquired a bacterial infection that required amputation of his left leg below the knee. Several years later, seeking help for his right foot with a similar infection, Henley traveled to Edinburgh to enlist the services of Joseph Lister who was doing pioneering work in sterile and antiseptic treatments. Lister saved Henley’s right foot with several surgeries. While recovering for 20 months in the infirmary, Henley penned the poem “Invictus,” from the Latin word for unconquered or invincible.
“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.”
If you’ve ever felt imprisoned, bludgeoned and bloodied by life, stuck hopelessly in a deep, dark pit, future all unknown, this 14-word mantra is for you.