I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
These bold words are the famous final lines of Invictus by the English poet, William Ernest Henley. The name of the poem itself, in Latin, means, “unconquerable” or more loosely, “unable to be mastered.”
My daughter recently memorized this poem for school. Her classmates thought these final two lines were pretty cool and a kind of pep talk or rallying cry regarding a certain kind of “self-mastery.”
Yet is this what true self-mastery is all about? At first, I thought of self-mastery as “self-control” or even “temperance,” such as with food and drink, for example. To me, self-mastery meant not eating too much chocolate cake or skipping that third glass of wine at the party. Not “going overboard” with your various activities, whether having to do with food, drink, sex, time-management, money, and so on seemed like what we’re talking about when referring to “self-mastery.”
Then I listened to a podcast episode last week from an independent school in Maryland called The Heights. In this episode, the headmaster of the school explained his definition of “self-mastery” and it enhanced my understanding quite significantly.
Here is the definition according to Alvaro de Vicente (headmaster of The Heights):
“Self-mastery is a certain integration of action, words, thoughts, and desires that gives one the interior freedom to not only do the good but to want to do the good.”
That may sound a bit too philosophical or pie in the sky, but please allow me to unpack the meaning here a bit (at least as I see it).
A Person of Integrity
First of all self-mastery is about being integrated or, better put, having integrity. A person of integrity is not only honest but also possesses true self-mastery. Think of an athlete. Someone competing in a sport must be a person of integrity in the fullest sense: it’s not just that they don’t lie, cheat, or steal (or dope), but that their whole body, mind, and spirit are working fully and entirely together to achieve their goals.
The athlete must have her entire body integrated with her mind (particularly her will), and not just when actively competing. Diet and exercise routines follow the athlete essentially 24/7 and skipping even one day of physical training could be the difference between victory and defeat. Even one Big Mac might lead to placing fifth instead of first. One’s will must be unified with one’s body, keeping one’s eyes on the prize.
Do You Really Want It?
de Vicente specifically lists “action, words, thoughts, and desires.” It’s not enough to do the right thing and to say the right thing: you have to also think the right thing and even desire it from the bottom of your heart. A person of integrity or self-mastery wants to do the right thing and does it. When self-mastery is mature, there should not be a constant struggle between what one wants to do and the right thing to do.
At this point, de Vicente mentions “interior freedom.” This happens to be a theme central to all three books of the The Shadows of Freedom series. So what is “interior freedom?”
Addiction and Freedom
Think of an addict: someone addicted to alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, food, sex, video games, whatever. After a while the interior freedom of the addict is very much diminished. The addiction is in control and the cravings grow too strong to overcome. In a way, addiction is a kind of fear of standing up to the cravings. It’s an anxiety about having to stand firm in the face of temptation. I learned this concept from Dr. Kevin Majeres of OptimalWork.com who was another guest on HeightsCast, the podcast of The Heights School.
Interior freedom is hollowed out in these cases. One may know with one’s mind what the right thing to do is—to stop getting drunk every day, for example— but one doesn’t have the self-mastery to do it. The first step is to want it. The next step is to do it.
Interior freedom is much like exterior freedom. It is the opposite of slavery. It is the liberty to do what one wants for the sake of the good. A “freedom for” … for others, for their good, for higher ideals, for something much greater than oneself.
When one possesses self-mastery and interior freedom one wills the right things to do and does them. It’s simple to say but very, very hard to do (at least very hard to do all the time).
Master of the Universe?
How then does this understanding of self-mastery contrast with Henley’s view, as depicted in Invictus?
Henley seems to want to become what these days we would call “the master of the universe.” The narrator of the poem wants to steer his own ship and control his own destiny. This may seem laudatory, yet are we called to be masters or stewards of the universe? This is yet another insightful point made by de Vicente is the podcast episode (definitely worth a listen!).
A steward acts responsibly with those gifts he or she has been given: that which has been entrusted to him or her. The steward does not ultimately own them, but uses them for the benefit of the true owner. This then is a better image of what really goes on in our lives. We do control our destinies … to a point; we are captains of our souls … to a degree, yet unexpected things happen and many things occur that are out of our control.
The best response is self-mastery: fostering true interior freedom, and then letting go of the rest, knowing Someone greater is in control.