It would not be one of my blog series if I didn’t include, in some form, the poem “Invictus,” written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. Although I had known of the poem for many years (remembered in vague childhood recollections as being recited by my father at some point, though I could be wrong) it wasn’t until I was befallen by a series of unfortunate events back in 2011 that it became a source of strength and inspiration that kept me encouraged, even when my life felt most challenged. At any given time in rereading the poem, different parts would catch my attention, giving me what I needed in that moment.
And so as these 40 days begin to wind down, this line stands out to me, “My head is bloodied, but unbowed,” reminding me that we can be bruised and battered–figuratively and literally–by circumstances, wounded by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and still be able to stand strong.We have all been through trials, challenges that left us wondering what was happening to us and when would it end (or when we would end.) It is in those moments that we learn what we are made of, we recognize our ability to withstand the storms no matter how hard the wind blows and how many times we get blown over. We somehow learn to get back up.
My life is so much better by far than it had been when things went sideways a few years ago. Every material thing I lost during those months has been fully restored and then some. The lingering residue from that time is that it left me with a keener understanding of who I am outside of the external trappings of social positions, jobs, relationships, and any tangible, material things. Those times weren’t easy, but they helped me to focus on what was important.
I think the line, “My head is bloodied but unbowed” implies standing strong in the face of adversity. On one level, it can sound like a lot of bravado; much of the imagery in the poem seems to focus on stoically taking a beating at the hands of life without crying out or bowing one’s head to it. I like to think there’s a sense of gratitude at having taken everything that circumstance had to throw at a person and coming through it stronger for what those circumstances had to teach. Life has it’s difficult moments. One can learn from them without being utterly shattered by them.
Sometimes it isn’t the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but small winds of discontent may blow through our lives…nothing that causes the serious damage of a tornado or hurricane, but enough to stir up a variety of smaller irritants. It’s much harder to learn what one is made of when life is slowly eroded away by these winds and rains rather than blown quickly away by a powerful storm. The good thing about the storm is that the damage is immediate, and you know how to assess it and take action to repair the damage. The slow erosion is much more difficult because of the gradual leaching away of essence and energy. It sort of makes the brutality of the storm sound preferable to the achingly slow, glacier like movement that grinds rocks and boulders into soil. (Oh dear, mixing metaphors again…)
In either case, the task is to stand strong as best we can, and persevere. This last week of Lent is filled with drama, of agony and ecstasy, but mostly agony. Jesus’s head and entire body was battered and bloodied as he went through the various trials and ordeals on his last day. His head wasn’t bowed either; for though he stood laid bare and humbled before the masses, even as he was beaten beyond recognition and paraded through the city streets headed to the hill of crucifixion, he still reached out and spoke to and comforted people around him, especially to those whom he loved. To the moment he died, his head was bloodied, but unbowed.
When people say, “I want to be like Jesus,” they need to be careful and mindful of what they’re asking for. Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn from the examples he set not only about how to be loving, kind, and compassionate but also how to suffer physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and somehow remain intact. There is so much more to learn, and so we go on.
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 bludgeoning 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 Ernest Henley, 1875