Invictus, Nelson Mandela’s Guiding Words

It’s not often that I watch a movie twice. Often, if it’s not what I’m looking for, I don’t watch a movie to the end once! And I’m not really into football. My wife says one of the reasons she married me was that I had no interest in spectator sports. I have enjoyed State of Origin, but only because I was lucky enough to be invited to watch the last two games, the equaliser and the decider, from private boxes. At lunch with my wife???s family for her mother???s eighty-something birthday, for the brief period that I remain a world authority on State of Origin, I was sallying forth on football. My father-in-law waded in and argued that League wasn’t real football, Rugby was the game.

Now to be honest, I???m sure there???s a difference between the two sports but be blowed if I have a clue what it is. My nephew chimed in with ???Rugby is not life and death, it is more important than that.??? So, feeling out of my depth, I went to safer ground and asked if they had seen the movie Invictus. For those of you who haven???t seen it, it is about Nelson Mandela’s first days in office as the President of South Africa and how he brilliantly uses the Springboks rugby team to reconcile the races and their tinderbox tensions. Matt Damon plays the captain of the team while Morgan Freeman does a magnificent job as Mandela. I was more than happy to watch the movie again, because it is not about rugby, it is about inspirational leadership and Mandela???s amazing capacity for forgiveness. Having read his autobiography, I, like the rest of the world, have a deep admiration for this unusual human. So the next day, as we had ten of us at our place watching the film for the second time, I noticed things that were not so evident to me the first time round.

A couple of times Mandela referred to the poem that saw him through his 27 years in prison. Afterwards, I found myself returning to the last lines of the poem, ?????? I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.??? A message I am repeatedly trying to deliver in psychotherapy. I wondered what the poem might have been called so I could hunt it down. Strangely enough, my guess that it was called ???Invictus??? turned out to be correct! Yes, sometimes I???m a bit slow (as my 17 year-old son is never too slow to point out ??? so Jack, I thought I would get in first!)

Invictus, Latin for ‘unconquered’, was written by William Ernest Henley when he was just 26 years old. At the age of 12, Henley fell victim to tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot. To save his life it was amputated directly below the knee when he was 17. The year was 1865. Dr John Snow, the inventor of anaesthetics, had used the new procedure with Queen Victoria for the birth of the last two of her nine children only a few years earlier. It is unlikely Henley would have been given one for a relatively simple procedure like an amputation. Mind you, a lack of anaesthetic would have been the least of his problems as he tried to make his way in life back then with the legacy of a childhood of severe illness and only one foot. The words of this poem drip with conviction and a faith in the self that could only be hammered on the anvil of adversity. I???m guessing that by the time he wrote this poem, he had experienced further ???dark nights of the soul.??? Here is the poem in full.


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.

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