Reckling: Light overcame Mandela’s darkest days
As a mediocre student at my illustrious college preparatory school, I was assigned to select a poem, penned by a British poet, for presentation and analysis in my European literature course.
We were to memorize and conduct a recitation and meaningful discussion of the chosen poem, which had to be a minimum of four stanzas and written before 1900.
The poem I chose was “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, a product of Henley’s painful battles with tuberculosis of the bone, which resulted in the amputation of his leg when he was a boy and his subsequent lifelong struggle with frequent illness.
Thinking back, I believe I was attracted to this poem due to my own struggles with typical teenage angst (plus, it was the minimum length assigned). I’d also clawed my way through a few years of Latin, and the poem’s Latin title, “Invictus,” meaning “unconquerable,” appealed to my youthful, defiant spirit.
With the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, the poem “Invictus” once again has resurfaced in my life. A news commentary on his remarkable life reminded me of the fact that “Invictus” was a poem that Mandela relied on and favored very much. The strength in its words had been something he had turned to during much of his life, especially during his long imprisonment. I had learned this about him when I visited his country in the late 1990s.
I had an opportunity to spend some time in Africa, specifically Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. The last two days of my trip were spent in South Africa, where I took a turbulent ferry ride from Cape Town to Robben Island. I wanted to see the prison where Mandela had been held for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration; the prison had evolved into a popular attraction since it was shut down in 1991. It was not your typical tourist experience, and it left an unforgettable, however dark, impression on me.
As I was reading the brochure I’d picked up prior to boarding the ferry, I was surprised to learn that “Invictus” was Mandela’s favorite poem; he said its inspirational words helped him through his darkest days as a prisoner, and he often recited it to fellow prisoners who were succumbing to the dreadful conditions and inhumane hell of Robben Island.
As I peered into the small, single cell that Mandela had occupied for so many years, a gentleman from my group began to read aloud the poem “Invictus” from his tour pamphlet, and the tears began to roll into the streams of sweat already on our faces.
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 the horror of the shade,
And 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.
In the face of adversity, we all wrestle with fear, discouragement and the temptation to give up. It’s part of the vulnerability of the human psyche. We also know that those who reach deep within and continue to carry on, against all odds, are those for whom we hold the greatest admiration.
In discussing his ability to lead, Mandela himself said, “It is possible that if I had not gone to jail and been able to read and listen to the stories of many people … I might not have learned these things.” He credits the darkness of his 27 years in prison with making him into a better man and exceptional leader.
He also believed that behind every seemingly ordinary person lies the potential for greatness. Certainly, we all have our challenges and inner trials, but if we put them in relation to what Mandela endured, we gain a sobering perspective. There is no better way to honor someone’s memory than to strive to emulate the goodness they exemplified.
He encouraged all people to resist being driven by anger and emotion but rather to seek peace and unity through reflection and consultation. The American political landscape and its hateful divisiveness could benefit from such wisdom, as would the demise of common decency towards one another in all aspects of life. It is in our self-responsibility that we will fulfill our greatest potential.
As Mandela was memorialized by one South African religious leader, “He has closed his eyes, now let us open ours.” We can endeavor to become better men and women, for we are indeed the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.