Martha Washington once wrote: “I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances.” Two hundred fifty years later, Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou embodied this principle, and in so doing provided a bright light of hope for humanity.
Both were treated unjustly, both experienced significant hardship, and both had to find it in themselves to rise above when limited or difficult circumstances collided with limitations in their personal character or experience up to that point. In so doing, each one of these inspiring personages sent a shock wave through the body of humanity, one that will reverberate for many years to come.
What these two said to themselves was essentially this: “I can handle this. I am not a victim. I need not blame. I can accept responsibility, rise up, and in so doing lift that which is willing to be lifted to a higher state of being.” In the case of Nelson Mandela, he spent nearly a quarter of his life in prison, and was subject to deplorable conditions and demeaning treatment throughout. Despite this, he maintained his commanding presence without ever putting on airs or becoming lordly.
Mandela took regular inspiration from Henley’s poem “Invictus.” When you read it, think of the dark times you’ve faced, the times when you’ve felt weak in relation to the tasks at hand, and the times when you have lost courage, or felt like lying down. Think of those times ahead when the winds will be at their worst. Think of the challenges faced by others, and let the power of these words fill you with the courage and strength to carry on:
“Invictus,” by William Ernest 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.
Likewise, Maya Angelou faced more than her fair share of dreadful hardships in the course of her life. Yet she, with inextinguishable dignity, penned these stirring words some 50 years into her long life:
“Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
One final poem I would like to share (again) with you to drive home Martha Washington’s point is the magical “If” by Rudyard Kipling:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
No matter what your day brings you today, know that you have a chance to influence, if not reshape your disposition, especially if your circumstances are unfavorable, if not downright awful. Your happiness depends upon it.