William Earnest Henley

The British boy William Ernest Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone when he was just 12 years old. He suffered from the disease for 13 years, until he was 25. By then, it had progressed all the way to his foot.

The doctors then told him that they would have to remove his most severely infected leg immediately, and that if he were to survive, they would need to remove the other one as well.

A strong-willed person, he gave the doctors permission to remove just one leg to the knee, but told them that he was keeping his other leg.

In 1875, at the age of 25, he wrote “Invictus” from his hospital bed. It was the perfect expression of his response to the challenges of life.

Invictus is Latin for “undefeated.”

Invictus by William Earnest Henley

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.

Nelson Mandela—the rest of the story

Henley went on to live an active, productive life as a poet. He kept his other leg.

While imprisoned in Robben Island Prison, where he was incarcerated for 27 years, Nelson Mandela (who later served as President of South Africa and won the Nobel Peace Prize) recited the poem to himself and other prisoners as a way to bolster their spirits and motivate them to press onward. He felt empowered by the message of self mastery.

Self mastery in overcoming adversity

Life is necessarily filled with challenges. And thank goodness! How boring it would be otherwise! But while we can’t control the cards that are dealt us, we CAN control how we react to those events.

Will they be events that give us strength? Will they give us wisdom? Will they teach us patience? Perseverance? Will they give us empathy for others?

Much good can come from things that seem so bad. Life’s greatest opportunities are often hidden in adversity.

Transforming life’s challenges into positive self-propellants takes self-mastery. Regardless what life gives us, we must remember, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”


Photo by Darren J Glanville at

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