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.
At the age of 12, William Ernest Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 17. Stoicism inspired him to write the poem Invictus which in Latin translates as unconquered.
Over the next four weeks I will post my reflection using a different stanza of this poem, the first of which is above. For students, the next few weeks leading to winter break are most trying. Finals, fear of grades that don’t quite meet expectations, the specter of not returning, or returning to new and more challenging coursework looms ahead. For those not in school, the holidays bring joy to many, but fear and anxiety to some. The fear that they won’t be able to celebrate as others due because of their economic situation; the loneliness of not having loved ones to share the holidays with; the uncertainty of whether friends will return from tours overseas.
I have leaned on Invictus as a reminder of how to overcome fear, doubt, and oftentimes pain. Since I was 19 years old I have learned to find refuge in the words of this poem and many others as I attempt to manage my own insecurities. This first stanza reminds me that trouble will always find its way to your doorstep, and that you can always find your way out of it. In fact, if you’re not in a storm right now, you are heading towards one, or coming out of one. This poem picks up at the latter, coming “out of the night that cover me, black as the pit from pole to pole.” This first stanza reminds me of the power of faith and gratitude as “I thank whatever gods may be,” and remember that I’m not in this alone – even when I’m by myself. The syntax of “whatever gods may be” helps the faithful and the faithless reflect on something outside of themselves, and something bigger than their circumstance. And finally, this stanza reaffirms that which I already believe; that despite whatever I’m going through or am facing, no matter how scary – my soul (i.e., my core, my essence, my spirit) remains strong.
As you go into this holiday / finals / new beginnings season…despite your circumstance, hold your head up – prepare for what’s to come, and be unconquered.
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