INVICTUS  (Oct., 2000)

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.


William E. Henley wrote this poem of defiance when he was facing the amputation of his

second leg. I have always liked it, but wondered whether this was a childish delight in

bravado, reminiscent of reading Superman comicbooks. In many ways I believed and

taught the opposite of what the poem says: “Go ahead, wince and cry aloud all you want,

it’s good for you.” I went to 12step meetings and chanted, “I am powerless....” I did not

believe in “the Horror of the shade.” I did believe in humility and gratitude (“If I have

seen farther, it is because I have been a pygmy sitting on the shoulders of giants.”) and

that if there was such thing as an Original Sin, egotism was a good candidate.


One of the best books on Alzheimer’s disease (I was diagnosed in 1998) is The Loss of

Self. It quotes a patient: “Every few months I sense that another piece of me is missing.

My life ... my self ... are falling apart. I can only think half thoughts now. Someday I

may wake up and not think at all ... not know who I am. Most people expect to die

someday, but who ever expected to lose their self first.”


What does “Invictus” mean to me now, when I am in a situation analogous to Henley’s

and, to paraphrase the Psalmist, “my thoughts are numbered”? I believe the poem

expresses an emotional truth and is an affirmation of the human spirit. The reservations I

have had about it contextualize it but do not invalidate it. Let me spell this out:


1) Gilda Radner, dying of cancer, quotes a famous parable in her book, It's Always  Something:

“A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming
to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the
edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where,
far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

"Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The
man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked
the strawberry with the other.

"How sweet it tasted!”


This attitude, tremendously appealing, does not really contradict “Invictus,” but amplifies

it. Not being busy wincing and crying, I can taste the strawberry.


2) But what of faith? Faith means the courage to feel the “dark night of the soul”: “My

God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Faith does not mean Insulation. Viktor

Frankl writes, ”Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to

minimize or alleviate the [concentration] camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring

false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.”


3) The poem says “don’t cry aloud,” but what is the poem itself but a magnificent outcry!

Frankl clarifies this apparent contradiction: “It was necessary for us to face up to the full

amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum.

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the

greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”


4) What meaning could it have for a person with Alzheimer’s to conceive himself as the

“master of his soul.” What could it mean in Auschwitz? Frankl writes, “We who lived in

concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting

others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but

they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last

of the human freedoms--to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to

choose one’s own way.”


Consider the patient quoted above: He is losing his mind, can only think “half thoughts.”

Nevertheless he can pull himself together to express his consternation, remember the

past, anticipate the future and compare his world to that of others. His mind is crippled,

but his soul remains free.


Frankl, of course, does not mean that one can survive a gas chamber by having an

affirmative attitude. “I am the captain of my soul” doesn’t mean unlimited personal

power--it means authentic personal power.




These considerations allow me to validate my liking for “Invictus,” and, indeed, assess

my previous reservations as containing an element of timidity. Tomorrow, when the

neuropathology has advanced, I may be an Alzheimer’s victim, but today I am defiant! I

can feel with the poem as I did not quite dare to when I was healthy. I can proceed to

live the feeling.


First, I can free myself from fear, courageously confronting what is most horrible.

Courage means not being dominated by fear, it does not mean fearing fear itself on top of

everything else. Sometimes the best way to avoid domination by fear is to fully feel the

fear for a time, and then move on.


For Nathan Sharansky, imprisoned by the Russian secret police, the greatest terror was

stimulated by the word rasstrel, death by shooting, uttered by his interrogator in a

satanic cackle. For us with incurable dementia, it is nursing home. How did

Sharansky survive? “Just as the skin on my feet used to toughen up every summer during

my childhood, when I walked around barefoot, I now had to toughen up my ears and my

heart until the sound and the prospect of rasstrel meant nothing to me.” He began to

insert rasstrel into almost every conversation with his interrogator, whether it was

appropriate or not. “Before long my plan began to pay off.... Within weeks, rasstrel

had become a word like any other.” As for myself, one thing I do is participate in the

ALZHEIMER Internet mailing list, where caregivers seek help managing their loved

ones’ agitation and incontinence, and from time to time ventilate dark thoughts

expressing their impatience with the “long goodbye.”


Also, as “master of my fate,” I can plan to avoid the final stage. I have joined the

Hemlock Society but, living in Montana, don’t need to hoard pills. I can, say, just

wander in the winter. I don’t need a perfect plan since I am not driven by fear but

motivated by self-determination.


Now, how can my head, though bloody, remain unbowed? How can I keep clinging to

the vine on the cliffside? Despite the tigers and the mice how can I, like Job, maintain

my integrity year after year until I have finished my tasks in this world?

Sheer willpower won’t do. Those who try to recover from addictions through

“white-knuckling it” rarely succeed. Like them, we need a multi-pronged approach.

A sense of humor helps. Fortunately, we with AD often keep our sense of humor for a

long time as we fade--we are like the Cheshire Cat. My Jewish background is useful

here. Humor helped us survive our early vengeful God (“With such a Friend, who needs

enemies?”) and then the Holocaust. Frankl relates how he applauded generously when

the Murderous Capo read his silly poems, while biting his lips to keep from laughing.

That’s the spirit!


Most important for endurance is finding what in oneself is deepest and centering oneself

on that. I think of self-restraint and kindness, in the exercise of which the young child

develops self-esteem and self-love. These values are expressed in the Biblical lines:

“What does the Lord require of thee? Only this, to do justice, love kindness, and walk

humbly with thy God.” By cleaving to one’s deepest values one will hopefully find a

God who is, in the words of the Psalmist, a Rock and a Refuge.


Clinton Erb, in Losing Lou-Ann recounts a moving example of how a person with

Alzheimer’s can manifest quiet strength in living with dignity and compassion:

It amazed me how residents could be a comfort and support. Bell, a wonderful older
woman with Alzheimer’s came over to say hello to Lou-Ann as she sat in her geri-chair.
Lou-Ann had been reaching out to people who passed by so when Bell got in arm’s
length of Lou-Ann, she reached out and placed her hand on Bell’s breast. Poor Bell was

“Don’t do that!” she exclaimed.

I apologized, “I’m sorry she did that to you. Lou-Ann has a mental illness [Pick’s] that
makes her do such things. She would never have done that if she were well.”

“How said. It’s too bad she has to be that way,” she replied.

Her indignation turned immediately to compassion. I was touched that a person, who
herself was demented, could understand the sadness in Lou-Ann’s condition and relate to
it. After that, Bell always had a special place in my heart. As Bell continued to decline
over the years, I never once heard her say anything negative about any person. Nursing
homes are filled with very special people.


People who have heroically endured often convincingly ascribe their victories to

a paradoxical capacity to “surrender.” Frankl talks about the value of letting fate take its

course in matters of secondary importance. Jacques Lusseyran participated in the French

Resistance in World War II. His blindness deflected suspicion from him. But he was

nevertheless captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. He survived--his advice

for persons facing tough situations is pertinent to the terrors and disorientation

middle-stage patients may face:

In a spot like this [awaiting interrogation and probable torture] don’t go too far afield
for help. Either it is right near you, in your heart, or it is nowhere. It is not a question of
character, it is a question of reality. If you try to be strong, you will be weak. If you try to
understand, you will go crazy.

No, reality is not your character which, for its part, is only a by-product--I can’t define
it, a collection of elements. Reality is Here and Now. It is the life you are living in the
moment. Don’t be afraid to lose your soul there, for God is in it.

If God’s pity does not exist, then there is nothing left. But to experience this pity you do
not need an act of faith. You don’t even need to have been brought up in an organized
Church. From the moment when you start looking for this pity, you lay hold of it. It
lives in the fact that you breathe and have blood pulsing in your temples. If you pay strict
attention, the divine pity grows and enfolds you. You are no longer the same person,
believe me. And you can say to the Lord: “Thy will be done.”


Is Lusseyran’s advice valid? Imagine the extreme opposite situation from his: a little

child in a warm cozy bed being soothed to sleep by a lullaby: “Rock-a-bye baby on the

tree top/ When the wind blows, the cradle will rock/ When the bough breaks, the cradle

will fall/ Down will come baby, cradle and all.” These strange words point to the same

great Paradox.


Hope empowers us. I can look toward the future with a spirit of adventure and a sense of

wonder. When I was a boy I was enthralled by science-fiction stories of time-travel, but

knew that realism forbade it. I never imagined Alzheimer’s. Near-death experiences

(NDEs) are said to be amazing Tunnels of Light. Perhaps they are caused by brain

dysfunction. Or perhaps “Life is a dome of many-colored glass/ Staining the white

radiance of Eternity” and brain dysfunction breaks the glass in places, letting the Light

shine through. Why not think of Alzheimer’s as a low-grade chronic NDE, which may

become acute toward the end?


Here’s one final hope, which I believe to be reasonable, though not to be excessively

counted on--sort of like the vaccine which Elan Laboratories is developing: In my

tradition, it is said that acting with self-restraint and kindness when in difficult

circumstances means serving God (belief is not required). To serve God leads to

knowing God, to know God is to love Him. In this Love, agony may be changed to

ecstasy. Thus our greatest martyr, Rabbi Akiva, is reputed to have felt no pain when

tortured by the Romans. We’ll see.


I will conclude this meditation on “Invictus” with a prayer of Dag Hammarskjold’s:

For all that has been -- Thanks!
To all that shall be -- Yes!



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