Invictus, the short poem about an “unconquerable” man who endured life’s hardships, was published in 1888 by English Poet William Ernest Henley. While the poem was published in 1888, the title Invictus was not given until years later. As you’ll see from the poem, the title is appropriate. It’s a poem that every man should know and live out.
Invictus is only 16 lines with an easy rhyme scheme, making it easy to memorize. Here’s the first stanza:
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.
The first stanza speaks of having an “unconquerable soul”. There is little that is of more value to a man than an unconquerable soul. Not talent. Not intelligence. Not money. In the end, being so tough inside that you refuse to back down and refuse to quit is what separates the winners and losers. Researchers are now confirming this fact, showing that “grit” is what wins in the end. Yes, you need to work hard. Yes, you need to develop your God-given abilities. But, if you’re going to reach the highest level, you need that internal quality that refuses to let go of the rope; you need an 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.
You cannot control life. Circumstances bring joy and pain, happiness and grief, injury and healing. And in every life there will be both. You cannot escape the hard times. You will take a beating at times. You will have days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years where you feel like everything is breaking against you. But you cannot back down. You cannot quit. Amidst the difficulties of life, though bloodied, hurting, and scarred, you must hold your head high and keep pushing forward.
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.
Life is often a place of wrath and tears. In this past month alone I’ve lost a beloved family member, seen a dear friend receive what is perhaps a terminal diagnosis, lost a former law school classmate, and saw my son’s teammate suffer a gruesome injury. Some of you have experienced much worse. And yet, we must move forward without fear. You must resolve to live without fear. Without fear of hardship, without fear of tragedy, and without fear of death.
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.
Through it all, no matter what life throws at us, it cannot make us wilt. It cannot make us give up. It cannot make us bitter. It can only influence, it can never control. For our wills are in our hands. How we respond to hardship and tragedy is a choice. For you are the master of your fate, you are the captain of your soul.
Life may be hard. But you can choose to be tougher. The answer is never to seek to escape the hard things of life. Technology tempts us to believe there’s no need for discomfort or inconvenience. It tempts us to seek to escape all difficulty. That, I assure you, is a Sisyphean task. It cannot be done. Hardship will always come.
Because it will always come, the solution is to lean into it. Prepare for it. Embrace it. Seek out hard things as part of your daily life so that your body, mind, and soul are hardened, strengthened against discomfort and stress. So that you develop grit. Because when you have that deep inside of you, when the storms of life come, they’ll find you unafraid and with your head held high, refusing to allow your soul to be conquered. This is the man’s life. Godspeed.
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