I had the distinct pleasure this week of reading the poem “Invictus” to a small room of maybe 35-40 people. My audience is homeless and we were in a dingy room in the back of a church. The room smelled of coffee, dirt, and sweat. The lighting is poor and the furnishing sparse and simple. It’s a place where homeless people can retreat for a couple of hours, away from the challenges that living on the street presents every minute of the day. This is a place to contemplate and it was my privilege to have the opportunity to share.
My audience was diverse. Black, white, male,female…as young as 6 years old to as old as 70. The street does not discriminate. My audience lives on the streets, but was interested in taking the time to listen to, and to discuss a poem. Think about that the next time you try to avoid contact with someone that’s lying on a piece of cardboard in a park. That’s a person with a brain lying there.
The word “Invictus” is from the Greek term invincible. The theme of the poem is about the will to survive while facing dire and seemingly impossible circumstances. The author, William Ernest Henley, had one of his legs amputated due to tuberculosis. He was faced with the prospect of losing his second leg when he penned this poem.
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 Ernest Henley
After reading the poem, we had a discussion. My homeless audience could certainly relate to Mr.Henley’s dire circumstances–they each have their own dire circumstances to deal with. My homeless audience could also relate to being “bludgeoned and bloody by circumstance.” Life on the street does not come without scars. My homeless audience engaged completely and understood my interpretation of the poem as it related to them.
My message to my homeless friends was simple: Your body can, has and will continue to take a beating as your life continues. Your body can heal from the physical wounds; however, within that body that you’re carting around, resides your soul, so be a little bit more careful about where you take it. Avoid the “horrors of the shade” and walk a straighter, narrower path. Being the “master of my fate” and the “captain of my soul” carries a responsibility. Be a better caretaker of your soul and have the courage to face each day with your head lifted–never bowed to your circumstance.
My homeless friends and I made an amazing connection. I struggled with my emotions as I read and thought about the “clutch of circumstance” of each and every audience member. I know quite a few of these people personally and am familiar with their struggles. I care about them. Luckily for me, emotional exchanges are welcome at the Retreat From the Streets.
After I concluded our discussion, we shook hands, we hugged, and went our separate ways. I drove away. They walked away.
While I may be the Captain of my soul, I never lose sight that God is my co-pilot.
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