William Ernest Henley's famous Victorian-era poem "Invictus" provided the title and the theme for Clint Eastwood's inspiring 2009 film about Nelson Mandela. It also provided the memorable claim, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."
It's a stirring assertion, and, in a very real sense, true. A great proportion of what we are and do rests upon our own decisions.
But not everything, and perhaps not the most important things. Henley's claim is also false and misleading.
As I write, a friend and neighbor is recuperating from a catastrophic fall that lacerated his face, took out most of his teeth, broke major bones everywhere in his body, and very nearly killed him. As he plunged toward the ground, he certainly wasn't the master of his fate, and he's scarcely more so as he lies in a hospital bed. Those who've surveyed the spot where he landed regard his survival as a miracle, and he himself, speaking with difficulty, testifies to it.
"I thank whatever gods may be," says Henley, "for my unconquerable soul."
Thirty years ago, my wife and I traveled with our infant son from Southern California to her parents' house in Denver, where the whole extended family were gathering for a Christmas trip to Florida. We participated in a "Messiah" sing-along and then went home to prepare for our flight to Orlando the next morning.
But then came what's been called "the Christmas Eve blizzard of 1982." Stapleton International Airport closed at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 24, remained closed for fully 33 hours, and then, for several days thereafter, was open only for severely limited operations.
Ten-foot-high snowdrifts were left throughout greater Denver, highways into and out of the city were shut down, power outages darkened large portions of the metropolitan area, roofs collapsed, supermarkets closed because their employees couldn't get to work, hospitals were reduced to minimal staff on emergency power and snowmobiles dominated suburban streets.
It was astounding to me, and revealing, to realize how easily simple snowfall could shut down a major modern city quite accustomed to seeing it.
We're plainly not entirely the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls. Rather, as Elder Orson F. Whitney (d. 1931) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles put it in "The Soul's Captain," his response to "Invictus," "Men are as bubbles on the wave, as leaves upon the tree."
We're fragile creatures. A few days without food, even fewer without water, a few minutes without oxygen and we're gone.
If our hearts miss just a few beats, none of our plans, ambitions, schemes or careful investments will mean a thing. And, in the end, no matter how we fight it, we'll die.
Our comfort and survival in the meantime depend upon cycles of evaporation and precipitation that few of us really understand, and we rely upon complex networks of exchange and transportation that very few of us could begin to explain.
The ground on which most of us live and where our food is grown was cleared of rocks, trees and stumps by millions of hardworking people whose names we've forgotten.
Our cities — big and small — feature large buildings erected by generations of construction workers to whom we've probably never given the slightest thought.
We owe a debt of gratitude that we can never repay.
"For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon … God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?" (Mosiah 4:19).4 comments on this story
The Book of Mormon's Amulek wisely counsels us that we should "humble ourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place we may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that we live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon us" (paraphrased slightly from Alma 34:38).
In the United States, where many of us are gathering together as families and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday, this is an exceptionally appropriate day for us to remember the debt that we owe to those who've preceded us and to God, "in whom we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.