The Light and darkness of Viktor Frankl and Nelson Mandela

I have written several posts on Viktor Frankl. One of my recent posts was about Nelson Mandela and his favourite poem ” Invictus,” which ends with the following words:

I am the captain of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

One writer makes the following connection between Frankl and Mandela:

“The power of the mind is a brilliant thing. We learning through science that our thoughts can, in fact, affect the physical world. Our reality is the effect of our thoughts. What is also amazing about thoughts is illustrated by two infamous gentlemen. Something VITAL that Viktor Frankl learnt whilst living through a concentration camp, and William Ernest Henley writes about in his poetry, is the fact that we have the choice to choose how we react to any given situation. We have the power to choose our fate, by choosing a positive way to react in any situation. That nothing external controls the direction we take our thoughts – it is our decision to choose our reaction.”

“Viktor Frankl said “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. He survived the concentration camp – the torturing, the starvation and the disease by keeping his mind positive. It was the one thing that the Nazi’s couldn’t take from him – his mind and power to choose his attitude. [Here is a] a brilliant poem by William Ernest Henley, which was also famously passed on from Nelson Mandela to the South African Rugby Captain, in the movie Invictus.”

Mandela used to recite this poem to his fellow political prisoners on Robben Island, seven kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. Here is the poem (my italics and bold):

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.

Mandela never discussed his religious beliefs. What is certain – if the last two lines of Invictus be indeed his leitmotif – is that, with Henley, he did not believe in the God of the Bible, and with Henley also shared a stoic resolve to rise above “the clutch of circumstance” and ”the bludgeonings of chance” to try to become the master of their fate, the captain of their souls. In the New Testament, there is a very different kind of captain, the Captain of salvation. ”For it became Him, of whom are all things, and by whom are all things, to make the Captain (Greek: archigos) of our salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).

In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, says Frankl, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. Et lux in tenebris lucet”and the light shineth in the darkness” (Man’s search for meaning, pp. 51-52). (See my The Light shineth in the darkness, but did Viktor Frankl comprehend it?

What Frankl did not accept was that this ”ultimate purpose” did not reside in man but in the sovereign God of the Bible. The overarching teaching of the Bible is the sovereignty of God, which can be summed in Isaiah 55:10-11:

”As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Man, therefore, according to the Bible is not the captain of his soul – God is.

There are “two groups of people, says my Jewish Phariseefriend; the ones who will not surrender themselves completely, and those who surrender themselves to the entity of their choice, are both making the same mistake. Both of these groups of people assume that it is their prerogative to surrender themselves when they chose and to whomsoever they chose. This is not the truth that is taught by the Jewish Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that we already belong, completely and totally, body and soul, to the One who brought us into existence and who is constantly sustaining every facet of our lives. (Psalm 95:1-7). It is not for us to choose to whom to direct our devotion to, nor is it for us to withhold our submission. It is for us to recognize that we already belong to the One Creator of heaven and earth.”

Frankl and Mandela’s light did shine in their darkness, but they did not understand – their darkness.

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