Last night I watched Invictus, the recent movie about Nelson Mandela and his enlistment of the South African Rugby team to help lead the country into reconciliation after the apartheid. It was really good. My favorite movies these days (and books too), seem to be ones about real people, especially those who have persevered through hardship and changed the world. It is impossible not to be inspired by them.
Mandela spent 30 years in a cell the size of a large walk-in closet. I didn’t get the details on how, exactly, he was treated while there, but, well…it was prison. And he was separated from his wife and children for the entirety. He missed millions – billions – of the precious moments that make life, life. He wasn’t even let out to attend his own son’s funeral. How bitter that experience would make most people. How did he survive that with not only his sanity and gumption intact, but with the magnanimity that allowed him to forgive and love and to work tirelessly on behalf of the country that had abused him? How? What was IN him? Where did that hope and grace and energy come from?
My Christian friends would probably say it came from his Methodist faith (or from the spirit of Jesus, whom he knew in the context of Methodism), but the thing is that Mandela’s story is not unique. There have been people all throughout history who have persevered in the same way, who followed other religions, or very different versions of Christianity, or no real religion at all. While it may be that his religion provided a framework of values for him to hold onto, I don’t think it facilitated any sort of mystical connection with a supernatural being that gave him some sort of added spiritual power. His choice to hold on to hope and choose to love and forgive was most likely just that – a choice. I doubt he felt anything supernatural at all while locked in that prison cell (then again, extended isolation has been known to breed such things as visions and revelations, both bad AND good). But my own experiences cause me to conclude that it was “life wisdom” – a thing that, by my definition, comes partly from a good education, partly from innate intelligence and a constitution prone to philosophical thoughtfulness, partly from the ability to step into another’s shoes, and ultimately from having positive, loving relationships with other human beings at some point in life. This is just my hypothesis, of course, but I am in good company.As the Dalai Lama once said,
“I have a certain amount of appreciation for others. It didn’t come from Buddhism. It came from my mother.”
Anyway, I want to print the poem by William Ernest Henley that, according to the movie, was a sort of rallying cry for him during his time in prison, and for which the movie is named. It is full of truth – truth that I need to be reminded of right now, particularly, but could benefit from on almost any day of the year.
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.
Amen to that, I say!