Message 96: “Destination Life: Are We Captain of Our Souls?, 6-3-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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In my never ending search for message topics of interest and meaning, a few months ago I came across the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.  The poet contracted tuberculosis of the bones at a very young age.  By the time he reached adulthood, both his legs required amputation.  He faced an uncertain future as the disease continued to ravage his body.  Like all of us, Henley thought deeply about his life, his destiny and how to make sense of it.  Unlike many who face tragedy or suffering, Henley turned not to God and religion for solace but to an inner core of strength and to Atheism.  The poem “Invictus” echoes his beliefs.  The poem reads as follows:

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.

The victors in life, the poem implies, do not wince or cry in the clutch of tragic circumstance.  With head bloody but unbowed, one faces the dark shade – death – without fear.  In complete renunciation of a wrath filled god waiting to render judgement, Henley declares that religious parameters for eternal salvation – the narrow gate of eternal judgement cited in the Bible – do not matter to him since, as he writes in the poem’s famous last lines, “I am master of my fate: I am captain of my soul.”

From a theological perspective, Henley stakes out a position on one side of an eternal human debate.  What controls our destiny and our lives?  Are we motes of dust floating in a vast universe whose destinies are controlled by gods or forces beyond our control?  Are we born, given life, forced to suffer, given prosperity and then die all by some capricious design?  Is there a master puppeteer pulling strings of our lives?

For some in the Gathering who come from a Presbyterian past, you might find such theology familiar.  Drawing from Paul’s words in the Biblical book of Romans which states that God shows mercy and saves some, while he hardens the hearts and condemns others, John Calvin originated this theology of Divine predestination.  It is a hallmark of Presbyterian belief and doctrine.  God ordered our lives long before we were born and He even dictates the decisions we believe we make on our own.

Other seventeenth and eighteenth century theologians like John Wesley, who founded Methodism, argued strongly to the contrary.  God gives us each the free will to choose and determine our destiny.  We are not predestined to hell or heaven before we are born – as Calvin believed.  We choose.  We decide.   We are captains of our souls – although God will render judgement on our decisions and we will pass through the narrow gate to Heaven or the gaping abyss into hell.

What struck me as interesting about the “Invictus” poem is that it also calls into question science that has emerged over the last hundred years – since the poem was written.  Moving beyond theology, scientists point to startling studies indicating that we are not controlled by a capricious god but by a capricious design embedded within our individual genetic codes.  Our personalities, our bodies, our intelligence, sexuality and longevity are all determined, according to many geneticists, by the DNA strands in our cellular make-up.  Whether or not we get cancer or become a star athlete, all aspects of our unique selves, and thus our actions, are predetermined by the genes we inherit.  The god of genetics controls us and, as biological determinists argue, we are not captains of our souls irregardless of whether or not a theistic god exists.

Lest the physical scientists believe they have all of the answers in regard to our destiny, social scientists have weighed into this debate and shown equally significant studies that it is our environment – and not just our genes – that plays a dramatic role in our destinies.  Recent studies indicate that the degree to which parents attach themselves to children at very early ages determines things like personality and sexuality.  Time magazine recently featured a profile of Dr. Bill Sears and his theories on parental attachment.  He soundly rebukes ideas from baby psychologists like Dr. Benjamin Spock who encouraged parents to foster independence in children by, for instance, allowing babies to cry themselves to sleep.  Dr. Sears, however, says that babies who are showered with affection, who are breast-fed for at least a year and who are nurtured and attended to on an almost constant basis grow into more secure, confident and empathetic adults.  Parents do not spoil young children, he says, as much as they act like loving parents should.

What all of these competing ideas mean for us on a spiritual level is of profound importance.  Not only do these theological and scientific theories propose from whence we came and where we are headed, they deeply affect how we live and how we treat our fellow humans.  Do we resign ourselves to having no control over what happens to us – accepting that we are mere puppets of a distant god or, even more disconcerting, of uncaring biochemistry like DNA strands?

What we discover, however, is that like Henley proposed, we are captains of our souls even if we allow for the fact that genes and environmental forces try their best to determine our fate.

Enlightenment philosophers determined, in efforts to diminish the role of God in human life, that free will rational thinking is a sole determinant of destiny.  Rene Descartes and others proposed that our minds and our mental choices alone chart our lives.  Such rationalist theories place the individual at the figurative center of the universe.  Humans choose their destiny.  They are in control.

How humanity understands the forces that shape individual lives determines our ethical, moral, spiritual and social ideas about human society.  Biological determinism or social Darwinism can be a slippery slope toward human profiling based on genetics.  A gay or lesbian gene might be isolated, studied and then tested for – thus prompting some parents to abort fetuses with a gay gene.  The same might be true for all sorts of genetic characteristics – from a propensity to being overweight to having only average intelligence.   Parents might eliminate fetuses or even choose their mating partners based on genes alone.

On the other hand, those who believe in the complete free will of any person will argue that we alone receive the credit or blame for our fate.  According to such thinking, if we are rich, smart and successful, we made good choices in life.  Good for us.  If we are poor, homely and struggle just to eat, we made bad choices in life and we deserve our ill fortune.  The plutocrats of Wall Street deserve their fortunes just as the homeless person outside our doors deserve their suffering.  Is that free will theory about fate one which we want to follow?

In the 1920’s, some scientists believed criminal behavior was genetic and thus encouraged the forced sterilization and even castration of convicted criminals.  Sterilization programs were carried out in many prisons.  Nazi Germans and racists in our own nation have used genetic profiling to support their prejudices.  Such theories believe a person is predetermined by their race to act in certain ways and thus racial stereotypes are acceptable because they are grounded in supposed science.  Is this a theory we wish to follow.

Recent studies, however, show environmental influences and our genes work together.  One study indicates that parents and other adults strongly – but unconsciously – favor attractive and calm babies.  Those babies who are unattractive or who have agitated demeanors receive less attention from parents, teachers and coaches.  Attention from adults toward babies is shown to significantly affect things like intelligence, personality, social skills and overall emotional stability.

Such studies not only show nurture and environment influence our destiny, they also indicate these factors interact in tandem with our genes.  If our genes make us physically unattractive, according to the research I just cited, our parents won’t nurture us as much as they do babies with good looks.  From the genes we inherit to how we were raised, we can blame all our faults on our parents!

But can we?  No.  And that gets to the rub in determining our life destiny.  To use William Henley’s poem as a guide and drawing from his analogy that we are captains of our souls, we should think about a true ship’s captain.  He or she sets a course and then navigates a boat throughout its journey by making thousands of big and small decisions.  But wind, weather, water currents, actions by other crew members and even the condition of the ship itself strongly affect how the journey ends.  A captain reacts to factors beyond his or her control.   His or her hand is firmly on the ship’s tiller, but forces beyond control heavily influence the ship’s course for good or bad.

Completing this analogy, one’s early environment, parents and genes may have strong influence, but we can course correct for those  influences.  We have the innate power to change the seemingly uncontrollable effects on us.  Through friendships, advice from others, reflection, study, cognitive change and / or psychological therapy, a person can reassert control over his or her destiny.

Recent news stories describe the fact that Barack Obama heavily used marijuana as a Hawaiian teenager.  His absent father and the lures of tropical hedonism were leading him astray.  He and his teenage friends used pot heavily for a time.  He admits to this fact in his autobiography but, he also writes that through the influence of his mother and his own resolve, he turned away from a life path that led to no good.  As the biracial son of a single mom living in Hawaii, Obama could have succumbed to the adverse forces shaping his life – those over which he had no control.  Instead, he chose to help determine his own life – working to overcome his genetic and environmental obstacles.  As we know, he went on to Harvard College and Chicago Law School – places where potheads do not often end up.

As an added sobering fact,  we not only make decisions affecting our own lives, we dramatically affect the lives of others.  Such is the intersection between our personal free will and how that freedom can changes other lives – people who have little control over what we choose to do.  If we reflect on this fact, we realize we are like gods and goddesses to others – manipulating strings of power over them.  And in such a recognition, we find a great responsibility to act appropriately and with care.  This is the stuff of great mystery and spirituality – our ability to irrevocably shape other lives.  We find then, that not only do genetics and our environments influence our destiny, but so do the actions of other people – friends and strangers alike.

I’ve talked to some of you about a chance meeting I had with of a member of Mount Auburn Presbyterian church out in Sedona, Arizona several years ago.  I met Dan by chance on a hike and after exclaiming surprise at both of us being from Cincinnati, I shared a bit of my life story.  He highly recommended that I visit a small church called the Gathering where he has many friends.  On my return, I did so and my life has not been the same ever since.  For good or bad, I now have some small influence over other lives at the Gathering.  From one minor and completely random event – one that may not have taken place had I slept in that morning or chosen another hiking trail – my life destiny and the lives of others were changed.

From experiences like that, we learn that there are mysterious forces beyond our control that heavily influence who we are today.  We might, as the poem “Invictus” implies, despair at random influences that seemingly dictate our lives.  We might protest any influence that hurts or controls us.  But the poem is ultimately a victory song we should follow.  Yes, life is unfair to some and overly generous to others.  Yes, we meet life forces over which we cannot control – from our genes, to our parents, to the random events of life.

But we are not impotent pawns in this game of life.  As I have asserted many times, God is not some outside force controlling our destiny.  God is us!  We are him or her.  A spiritual force works within our genes, our birth and our lives to help shape who we are…….but we too, we too have that same force in us that we use to shape our destiny.  We work to build heaven or hell in our lives.  We work to build heaven or hell in the lives of others.  Such is the ironic message in the poem “Invictus”.  As much as Henley claimed to be an Atheist, he exalts the little ‘g’ god in himself and in others.

The wind might batter our ship.  Waves might push us towards rocky shoals.  Rain and storm might threaten to sink us.  As captains, though, we fight against such challenges.  We steer our ship and no matter what happens, we do not give up until we claim a victory over fate itself.  We worship the god of our own victorious selves.

In my last message here about Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, The Places You Will Go, I related the life history of a woman I know named Mary who lives in Madisonville.  I talked about her persistent hard work to overcome great obstacles in life and how I believe we as a society are responsible to help people like her.  Mary is appropriately named, however.  As the grandmother to a young boy she raises by herself, she asserts a god-like power over him.  His mother was an addict and the boy was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.  He has some learning disabilities.  But Mary is a ferocious grandmother tiger to him – challenging him, sternly disciplining him, protecting him from indifferent teachers and neighborhood bullies.   She also smothers him with affection and love.   The whims of fate did not deal a great hand to this young boy and yet Mary is a god influence in his life, determined to help create for him a version of heaven where he can succeed and flourish.

Such is also our call and our responsibility.  We cannot allow fate to control us.  We cannot sit by and allow capricious forces at work in our universe to dominate.  Indeed, as human beings endowed with fantastic abilities of intelligence, reason, compassion and empathy, we are perhaps one of the most powerful forces active in our world.  We cannot begin to understand the thousands of small and large influences that shape our destiny but we can enlist ourselves in the effort to help control them.

We strive to overcome forces in our lives.  We do not give up.  We press on.  We work.  We persevere in life no matter what.  We seek growth and understanding.  That is one reason why we are a part of this congregation – to nourish our lives with spiritual wisdom and thus change ourselves and our world.

To someone like Lisa Blankenship, a former member here whose longtime partner Gen Critel just died at the age of 31, how does Lisa  reconcile this idea to press on when the love of her life is now gone?  How do any of us reconcile such a death – of someone in the full flower of life, who just finished her doctoral degree and had realized her dream to be a professor teaching young minds?  For all of her planning and diligence to set her life course and be captain of her ship, a rogue wave came out of nowhere to snuff the breath from Gen Critel in her sleep.  What can we say about such circumstances?  We shudder at the realization such fate could happen to any of us – we go to sleep tonight and simply do not waken in the morning. But do we despair for too long?  Do we give up knowing our lives are so fragile?

We must never give up.  Never, ever give up.  As long as there is breath in our lungs, thoughts in our minds, and love in our hearts – we must choose to remain at the helm of life – doing battle with wind and wave – and forbidding that unseen and unknown forces should find us defeated or giving up.  No matter how old, how young, how strong, how weak, how sick or how healthy, life and all we have to give others are too precious to waste and too dear to abandon.

We do, indeed, worship a great god and goddess.  You will find that god sitting next to you.  You will find her when you next look in a mirror.  She was in Gen Critel.  He is in you as he is in me.  May we praise that spiritual force inside us from whom all blessings flow…the captain of our souls.