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,
its 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 Alzheimers 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 Henleys
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] camps tortures by ignoring them or harboring
false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.
3) The poem says dont 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 Alzheimers 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 ones attitude in any given set of circumstances, to
choose ones 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 doesnt 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 Alzheimers 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, dont need to hoard pills. I can, say, just
wander in the winter. I dont 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 wont 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.
Thats 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 ones 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
Alzheimers can manifest quiet strength in living with dignity and compassion:
It amazed me how residents could be a comfort and support. Bell, a wonderful
woman with Alzheimers 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 arms
length of Lou-Ann, she reached out and placed her hand on Bells breast. Poor Bell was
Dont do that! she exclaimed.
I apologized, Im sorry she did that to you. Lou-Ann has a
mental illness [Picks] that
makes her do such things. She would never have done that if she were well.
How said. Its too bad she has to be that way, she replied.
Her indignation turned immediately to compassion. I was touched that a
herself was demented, could understand the sadness in Lou-Anns 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] dont
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
it, a collection of elements. Reality is Here and Now. It is the life you are living in the
moment. Dont be afraid to lose your soul there, for God is in it.
If Gods pity does not exist, then there is nothing left. But to
experience this pity you do
not need an act of faith. You dont 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 Lusseyrans 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
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 Alzheimers. 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 Alzheimers as a low-grade chronic NDE, which may
become acute toward the end?
Heres 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. Well see.
I will conclude this meditation on Invictus with a prayer of Dag Hammarskjolds:
For all that has been -- Thanks!
To all that shall be -- Yes!
Write me: MorrisFF@aol.com