Invictus

“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley is my favorite poem.  The first time I heard it was in junior high school when a classmate recited it in English class as part of her bid to deliver the commencement speech at our eight grade graduation.  I ended up winning the competition and delivered my speech to my classmates and their parents (as if I knew what I was talking about) but, as hard as I try, now I can’t remember what I said.  All I remember from that competition was the poem from her speech and how it made chills run up and down my arms. 

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.

Even at 13, I felt like I understood more than a little something about “the fell clutch of circumstance” and the “bludgeonings of chance.”  I loved the image of my head being “bloody but unbowed.”  I loved how the poem conveyed a sense of awesome strength, fortitude, fearlessness and courage in the face of life’s brutalities and its ability to engender in me through its imagery and cadence, even at such a young age, all of those virtues.  But what I loved and still love most about the poem and what I couldn’t really articulate and grasp at 13 was the sense of power it gave me — “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”  Almost 25 years and a lot of living later, I can say unequivocally that I get it.

As I’ve said before in Deals With God, I didn’t grow up reading religious texts and still don’t.  This poem is the closest I’ve come to reading or studying anything in an effort to find solace.  I’ve turned to “Invictus” more than a few times since my cancer diagnosis.  I think about it on the eve of every chemo treatment.  I thought of it last Tuesday when the cold sensitivity brought on by the oxaliplatin made it difficult for me to breathe while pushing Belle in the stroller to school.  I think of it when I’m afraid in the middle of the night.  I have even googled the nineteenth century poet, William Ernest Henley, for surely someone who could write so beautifully about withstanding hardships must have had more than his fair share.  According to Wikipedia, the man was no stranger to physical suffering, part of his leg having been amputated in adolescence due to tubercular disease and the other leg barely saved through radical surgery.  Despite his physical ailments, he went on to live a relatively long and fruitful life.

Although Henley died a lifetime before I was born, I suspect that our spirits are united in our understanding of physical limitations, that the same questions tortured him and me in our adolescence.  He must have asked himself why he had to live most of his life as a cripple while so many of his contemporaries did not?  I asked at least a thousand times why I was born blind while society’s degenerates who add no value to the world have no physical disabilities whatsoever.  And yet both of us, he especially as someone who witnessed much more disease and mortality in his era, no doubt share a gratitude, a recognition that things could have been worse.  Even so, gratitude can never silence the persistent “Why” questions that arise from every tragic event, whether past or present, whether far-reaching or personal.  Physical and mental disabilities, disease, child abuse, plane crashes, car accidents, shootings, terrorist attacks and all other circumstances and events that result in senseless suffering — they all give rise to the agonizing and universal questions of why.   Why did I develop colon cancer in my 30s when I ate right, exercised like a fiend and didn’t drink or smoke and there is no real cancer in my family?  Why were two entire families wiped out in a plane crash in Alaska over the summer?  Why are innocent babies born with horrible diseases every day, diseases that will cruelly and unfairly deprive them of the ability to experience even a modicum of what life has to offer?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why!

The only time I have been truly angry about my diagnosis was when the UCLA oncologist revealed that genetic testing on my tumor indicated no genetic markers.  I understood that the lack of a genetic explanation for me having cancer was a good thing for my daughters and my siblings.  I understood this, yet I was beyond furious.  I raged at the oncologist, “So there’s no fucking reason for this shit!  Is that what you’re telling me?  No fucking reason at all!”  He told me, not unsympathetically, “It’s just bad luck.”  Random bad luck was an entirely unsatisfactory causal explanation.

The need to answer the “Why” question, to find reasons is basic to anyone’s attempt to cope with suffering, as if an answer will make the suffering less painful, as if a reason will make sense out of an otherwise senseless occurrence.  And yet, even when one can point an accusatory finger at that mutant gene or that renegade bacteria or that pilot error, the fundamental “Why” question still remains unanswered.  I know that mechanical failures in the human body and in man-made vehicles occur for any number of seemingly simple or complex reasons that may be attributable to neglect, abuse or just random happenstance, resulting from a series of unfortunate events.  But why did those things happen in the first instance?  It’s like a four year old’s unending why questions that ultimately cannot be answered to anyone’s satisfaction.  “Why can’t I have a doughnut?”  “Why is sugar bad for me?”  “But why does sugar do that?”  “Why does sugar exist if it’s bad for us?”  At some point all”Why” questions are unanswerable.  At some point, all of them, no matter their subject matter, when reduced to their lowest common denominator are questions about our very metaphysical existence that go beyond our limited understanding.  At a basic level, the questions are about why we breathe, why the sun shines, why we as human beings cry and laugh.  How can we possibly know the answers to such questions?

Unanswerable as the “Why” questions may be, we ask them anyway.  I don’t know why I was born with congenital cataracts, although I’ve certainly asked the question time and time again.  My mother says it was because of some pills she took when she suffered second degree burns caused when she accidentally spilled boiling water over her legs.  She has used her explanation to blame and punish herself with guilt, even now.  I’m not convinced that was the reason for my birth defect.  But even assuming that the pills were the direct cause, I found myself asking why was she at the wrong place at the wrong time?  In the hundreds of times she had handled boiling water, why did an accident happen that one and only time while she was pregnant with me?

Because I never could find an answer to those second set of “Why” questions to explain my visual disability, I started asking what I call universal “Why” questions, as in “Why did God do this to me?”  Or, phrased differently, “What is God’s purpose?”  Or “What is the universe trying to tell me?”  One great-uncle who hated my matriarch of a paternal grandmother until her dying day and beyond said that I was born the way I was because I was the embodiment of a curse on her and her family, which she deserved for all her wrongdoing against him.  As painful as that was to hear when I was a child, I never believed it.  I don’t believe that bad things happen as punishment for bad behavior.  I just don’t subscribe to that kind of vengeful and unforgiving theory of God and the universe.  Instead, I was more inclined to believe in the notion of a greater purpose.  When tragedy happens people in their well meaning efforts to console say trite things like “Everything happens for a reason.”  I’ve often been told this like it’s some profound sentiment that I hadn’t considered in my many hours of agonized questioning.  I can’t be too critical though since I’ve told myself the same trite thing hundreds of times.  I’ve even told myself that I was meant to be born into this body with all of its physical limitations, that God had a plan for me, that my suffering has made me wise beyond my years, that I have a greater grasp of the human experience than most my age, that I’m lucky even, that as a result of the universe’s tendency to restore balance, I am fortunate in so many ways that others are not.  As arrogant as it may sound, it was as if being somehow chosen specially by God, spiritually superior in my wisdom and unusually fortunate despite my one great misfortune could somehow compensate me for the great injustices of my life and could make seeing the world so imperfectly somehow acceptable.  Arrogant or not, these reasons were the answers I came up with in my adolescence for my universal “Why” questions.

I am no longer an adolescent and I no longer believe in these answers, at least not with the conviction I once had.  I understand now that I came up with these reasons to make myself feel better, not because I had some kind of religious epiphany or any other actual insight into the inner workings of the universe.  My explanations made me feel safe and more importantly made me feel like my pain was not pointless.  To believe that there is a preordained plan imposed order in a world where there was so little order.  A plan, and one that is put in place by God no less, reduced the fear of all the potentially bad things that could happen, and made me believe that my suffering served some unknown greater purpose designated by God.  Thinking this way made me feel less alone in this vast universe where infinite possibilities lay with so much potential tragedy at every turn.  Without a greater purpose, I felt like I would otherwise be floundering blindly in the dark, acting solely on instinct and good intentions.  Making myself feel better in all these ways by believing in a greater purpose and a reason for all suffering was and is simply not a good enough basis upon which to construct an entire philosophical approach to life’s challenges.  It simply isn’t.

So what am I left with now if I am no longer convinced by the answers to my universal “Why” questions?  Where does that leave me in terms of having a coping mechanism for all the bad things that have happened and will happen to me?  How do I come to terms with the fact that I have advanced colon cancer at age 37?  How do I make peace with God and the universe?

I noted in I’m Not Crazy that the story behind my visual disability was worthy of a separate blog, but the more I write about living with cancer, the more I realize that my cancer fighting journey began long before the first polyps appeared in my colon.  It began the moment I was old enough to understand that I was different and that I faced physical challenges that other children did not. Years of living with limited sight have forced me to ask “Why”, and to evaluate the merits of asking “Why” and the answers that first came to me when I was ten, eleven, twelve years old and then the revised answers that came in the many years that followed with each new physical challenge I encountered.  So when cancer happened to me, I automatically went back to the thinking that had sustained me for so many years. I tried to figure out the purpose of my colon cancer.  Again, what is the universe trying to tell me?  What is the karmic reason for all this.  In the darkest hours of my diagnosis when the pain was fresh and the fear suffocating, I found comfort in believing that God once again had a plan for me, but that comfort was short-lived because at some point I had stopped being truly persuaded by the answers to my “Why” questions that I formulated so many years ago.  I’d stopped having faith in the belief that everything happens for a reason and that God has a greater purpose for me.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that much of my success and achievements, from being accepted at elite undergraduate and graduate institutions, to landing a job at a prestigious international law firm, to marrying the man of my dreams, to hiking through New Zealand with limited vision, was because, as much as I could, I willed those things to happen.  Of course, so much remained out of my control — after all I couldn’t make Josh fall in love with me  — but I did everything in my power to realize my dreams; I studied hard; I put myself out there and risked failure and heartbreak, and most importantly, I didn’t allow myself to believe that I was a victim of circumstance.  Lots of terrible things can happen to us and we will never really know why they happened, either in the direct causal sense or in the universal sense.  But what we do know is that we can control how we respond to the challenges we face.  I have a choice as to how to live with cancer, just as I always had a choice about how I would handle my visual impairment.  I can refuse treatment and pretend like I’m not sick.  I can be angry and bitter.  Or I can accept what has happened with grace and dignity and search for the goodness that I know from experience can come out of tragedy.  To do so is to demonstrate the unconquerability of my soul and the indefatigable nature of my spirit.  Even though I inhabit a world where I have so little power, I have always had and will always have power over my spirit, over the way I choose to respond to life’s challenges.  Maybe I was right in that I am wiser than most because of the lessons I learned through overcoming a visual disability.  Maybe it’s true that I am indeed lucky.  Maybe it’s true that I have been blessed with living more of the human experience than others my age.  But I assure you, none of that happened because I sat helplessly and idly by and let God or the universe work his or its revelatory magic on me.  It happened because I willed myself to find that wisdom, good fortune and the blessings from every bad thing that has ever happened to me, from ever crying fit, from every moment of terror, confusion and heartache.  And so it is and so it shall be too with cancer.

I choose to believe ultimately in me and not some trite vague idea about everything happening for a reason.  It may very well be that God has a plan for each of us, but I cannot know this with any certainty.  The only certainty I have lies within me and my sense of self, in my desire for self-determination and to control my destiny amidst all the forces beyond my control.  I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.  I have not cried nor winced aloud nor will I.  My head is bloody but unbowed.  The menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid.  I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.  These are the words I choose to live by.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Katie Vogler
    Sep 30, 2013 @ 23:10:22

    I am amazed by your clarity and strength. Just the other day someone asked me about my faith and if it brings me any strength coping with cancer. I said that I hope this is happening for a reason, like bringing me closer to my parents. But I think you are right, the good that might come out of this will happen if I make it happen, not by passively getting through it or hoping for divine intervention. We have to stay strong, controlling what we can, for as long as we can.

    Reply

  2. Debbie
    Sep 30, 2013 @ 23:11:05

    Your thoughts and writings that you share, is your gift to us. Thank you !

    Reply

  3. Shan
    Oct 12, 2013 @ 14:00:57

    Your strength in enduring so many physical and other challenges in the past is exactly why I (and I’m sure so many others) believe you will overcome this present challenge. You are amazing.

    Reply

  4. Joe
    Oct 28, 2013 @ 11:23:42

    If theres one thing that can hold cancer back when meds fall short, it’s this kind of overwhelming positivity/courage leaping off your writings. Keep fighting the good fight Captain!

    Reply

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