wince: To make a facial or bodily expression of pain because of seeing or thinking of something unpleasant or embarrassing.
For some reason, I awoke last Friday morning with lines from the poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, running through my mind. Here is the full text of that poem, first published in 1875.
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.
As I read those familiar stanzas on Good Friday morning, March 29, 2013, I could not help but respond: “What a load of hooey!”
I mean no disrespect to Mr. Henley, whose name continues to be remembered 110 years after his death by virtue of this single poem. The poem apparently represents the conclusion to which the author came when he found himself in what he called “the fell clutch of circumstance.”
Henley contracted tuberculosis as a teenager, and, as a consequence, lost one of his legs to amputation when he was 17. By all accounts, he overcame this serious obstacle and went on to lead an active life until his death at age 53.
I still have both my legs and, so far as I know, all of my other limbs and organs, and most of my faculties. I seem to have lost, however, or very nearly lost, something at least as valuable as a leg—my will to go on.
Invictus (Latin for “unconquered”) is a powerful poem. As a writer wannabe, I envy the skill required to craft such memorable phrases as “my unconquerable soul” and “the bludgeonings of chance” or a line like “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” But I can appreciate the piece as a work of literary art without sharing the sentiment which it conveys.
Like William Ernest Henley, I perceive myself to be “in the fell clutch of circumstance.” I wish that, like the author, I could say that “I have not winced nor cried aloud.” Every single day, however, and several times a day, a kind of wave sweeps over me. It reminds me that time is rapidly passing, my resources are depleted, and my prospects never seem to improve. Sometimes, when this happens, I feel that I can barely breathe. Every time it happens, I wince. Really.
Moreover, nobody knows better than you, my readers, that I have “cried aloud” about my situation on many occasions. I have, after all, done much of that howling in posts to this blog.
Unlike William Ernest Henley, I feel I am at the mercy of my circumstances, and I most certainly do not feel like the “master of my fate” or the “captain of my soul.”
I understand why this poem is so popular. We like to think we are in control of our lives. For example, I once overheard a conversation between two friends of mine. The one asked the other, “How are you doing?” The other replied, “I’m doing all right, under the circumstances.” The first quickly responded, “That’s the problem. You’re not supposed to be under your circumstances. You’re supposed to be on top of them!”
Again, I know why we identify with that sentiment. Nobody really wants to believe that their circumstances are insurmountable. Self-help gurus and prosperity preachers have built entire careers out of convincing people that, if they change their outlook and their attitude, if they persevere, if they have sufficient faith, things will change and their circumstances will improve.
I want to believe that too. But I’m not sure I do anymore. My life is out of control. More particularly, it is out of my control. At least that is the way it seems to me, and I thought I knew what to do about it. Now I’m not so sure.
I am sixty-three years old. The last time I drew a paycheck, I was fifty-eight. It is not only painful and discouraging to write that sentence. It is humiliating.
The toll extracted by long-term unemployment is far greater than merely the loss of income, although that should not be downplayed, particularly when the term of unemployment is so great that it forces premature depletion of retirement savings. More serious than that, however, is the damage to the psyche of the unemployed.
I started to write a sentence here that began this way: “Unless you, like me, have been out of work for an extended period of time… .” I deleted it because it would have been inaccurate. I’m not out of work. I work hard, every day. And over the past five years, except for a few brief episodes when I was so overwhelmed by my circumstances that I could not function, I have kept busy and tried to be as productive as I ever was when I was gainfully employed.
For most of the first year after I lost my job, my energies were focused on doing everything I could to help my wife fight her battle with breast cancer. For the next two years, I worked hard to complete requirements for Holy Orders as an Anglican priest. For a year and a half after that, I worked hard at learning how to function as a priest and prospective church planter. (My brief time in that role has, so far, turned out to be one of the most painful, least satisfying experiences of my life.)
Then, since October 2011, I have worked hard at writing this blog, which now consists of nearly 200 posts, including thirteen podcasts and eighteen chapters of The Arthur Chronicles. Beyond all this, I continue to read extensively and broadly so that, when God opens a new door for ministry, I’ll be prepared to go through it.
So, with that disclaimer, I will return to the sentence I started to write two paragraphs ago. Unless you have experienced an extended period of time during which you were not gainfully employed, you cannot appreciate the damage inflicted on a person’s sense of self-worth by the constant awareness that nobody values the work you do enough to engage you to do it for pay.
Long-term unemployment distorts your judgment and your ability to perceive reality. It’s like wearing sunglasses all the time. Everything takes on the tint of your circumstances. I interpret every situation I observe through the filter of my own joblessness.
For example, I have come to the place where, when I read something by a Christian thinker or teacher or activist, no matter how penetrating or insightful or prophetic it might be, the first thing I think of every time is something like this: “At least he (or she) has a job,” or “I wonder if he (or she) has ever been unemployed for an extended period, and if not, how might such an experience affect what they are saying in this piece.”
I have written before (here and here, for example) of the covenant into which God and I entered when He called me to vocational ministry more than forty years ago. For more than thirty-five years, my circumstances seemed to indicate that both parties were living up to the terms of the covenant. For the past five years, however, things have been radically different, and I simply cannot understand what is going on.
In my last blog post, I talked about a reason for optimism regarding the possibility of a new church in the vicinity of the OSU campus in Columbus. I genuinely believe that a church like that is going to become a reality, irrespective of my own involvement in the enterprise. The vision is from God, and He already knows when it will take root and begin to flourish. I hope to be involved. Whether I am or not, I will bless the effort that does bear fruit. More than that, I don’t necessarily see a connection between that endeavor and the circumstances which weigh so heavily on me today.
I look forward to the day, whether in this life or in the world to come, when I will have a clearer understanding of why it has been necessary to walk this particular valley. Until then, I pray daily for the strength to look into the face of God and declare with confidence, “You are the master of my fate; You are the captain of my soul.”
And I can’t wait for a time to come when I can look back on this chapter of my life and not wince.
Soli Deo Gloria.