The Master of my Fate
By Wesley Bishop
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
– by William Henley,
excerpt from “INVICTUS”
As I open with these infamous words, let me say I am well aware of the implications and still vivid connections. In fact, I drew upon these very words precisely because of their raw implications and notorious connections. To so many, these words can seem almost heretical, almost blasphemous. And yet, in their proper context, these words ring true even for those who would hold Henley in contempt. Even if we choose to guide our lives by following the moral example of a great religious teacher or Higher Spiritual Power, it is still our choice that leads us to do so. So, we are a master of our fate, even if in our minds we believe there is a Higher Master. We choose how we will direct our lives, for good or bad, for morality or immorality, for skilful or unskilful actions, for righteousness or evil. And the God’s honest truth is; all of us do a little of both depending on our inclinations at any given time. We have a tendency to be naughty from time to time, and enjoy ourselves immensely while doing so.
On the grand scale, what seems evil to one culture may be perfectly acceptable in another. A society would of necessity have to be homogenous in order become anything close to resembling a genuinely moral society. Simply put, everyone would have to believe and agree on everything. Of course, the global reality is so much different. Given the subjective nature of morality across cultures, it really is no wonder the conflict that arises when different cultures meet, which is by definition “culture clash.” Politics further compounds the issue by providing a spectrum across which to divide people further within any given culture. In ancient times it might be said that the prevailing politics was that of the strong man who led that society, and the opposite end of the spectrum could only come from a challenge to the “throne.” The modern societies which define the world in which we live now are complicated in that, at least in democratic countries and increasingly in non-democratic countries, the whole spectrum of politics is made available to the masses.
From radical liberals to reactionary conservatives, some form of voice is allowed a degree of expression throughout, even if considered illegal. Admittedly, that expression is allowed in greater and lesser degrees depending on which society is being considered, but moderation is not a predisposition humans are naturally inclined to. It suggests compromise, a challenge to authority paternal societies in general are not well equipped to handle mentally; and in the overt extreme compromise can dilute a culture, leading to the demise of maternal societies (Native American and European Celtic tribes, for example). In the world we have before us, with huge societies made of so many cultures and sub-cultures, and compounded by the spectrum of politics, it is no wonder morality becomes an issue that divides rather than unites. I think we all agree that we all need a morality to live by; we each individually disagree over just what that morality should be.
On a lesser scale, it is not only likely but highly probable that we ourselves participate from time to time in actions we otherwise deem sinful, bad, immoral, unskilled or wrong. Some, in Christian terms, have a tendency towards being quick to point out that all humans are created in sin, to sin; but when it comes down to it, these same people overlook these tendencies in themselves. While the statement was made in Christian terms, the concept is not foreign to other religions, faiths and philosophies. If humanity were wholly without guilt and shame, there would be no need for morality teachings, philosophy or religion. The psychological implications are enormous, likely having some basis in self-preservation, but the end result is that we often believe ourselves to be infallible, especially when we are not. Even those who uphold the very best of intent in conducting their daily lives are still subject to errors in judgment. We all make mistakes; we just have a hard time admitting this to ourselves in any more than the most philosophical, remote and distant manner. So Henley is again correct, we are the captain of our souls, even if we answer to a Superior Officer. We direct how we conduct our lives, guiding ourselves along the path lit before us.
Some of us seek additional guidance, choosing to light our path with the experience and wisdom of tradition and spirit. Some of us choose to light our path with our own means and intellect. A lot of us do a bit of both in an attempt to balance our innate desire for outside guidance against our doubting nature that is painfully aware not only of our own intellectual shortcomings, but those of the collective world around us. Add in the deliberate confusion brought about from mass communications and marketing, designed to instil and encourage an either/or attitude, and we remain pitted against each other in an “us or them” frame of mind. “How can they possibly be moral and righteous and good, when it is we who really are!” Such a false dichotomy entrenches intolerance, making it more and more difficult to live peaceably with our neighbors. Yet the greatest likelihood is that both sides are equally moral, at least in their own eyes if not the eyes of God, for whom none of us is worthy to presume. And where that morality differs, in the long run, is meaningless and insignificant.
Here is the natural overlap of the grand and lesser scales: for many of us, what we believe works for us must work for any and all others. Not as an invitation, but a demand. Since “my” morality and tradition and religion is obviously superior to yours — we think — then “you” should adopt my ways, methods and culture. Of course, the person on the “other” side of the equation thinks the same thing. In the best of circumstances this leads to disagreements. In the worst it leads to all of the horrors of war. While this continuum is a natural extension of our inherent tendencies, if we are to “get along” together in anything that even resembles peace, we must find a way to agree to disagree in a respectful manner. This requires effort, it is not a natural tendency, but it can be done.
So much for the implications of Henley’s Invictus. Now for the connections. Perhaps less well remembered is the person who issued these very words in his final written statement before his execution: Timothy McVeigh. In the grand scheme of world terrorism, McVeigh is probably a footnote; an afterthought, if a thought at all. So much has happened since then that his heinous act pales in comparison. That, and that he willingly allowed himself to be executed for his crime with minimal legal interference, allowed for a form of closure. At least for those of us who did not lose a loved one in that disaster, a sense of justice has been achieved. For an individual who was duly tried and found guilty of the pre-meditated murder of 168 innocent civilians, a great many of whom were pre-school age children, even the death penalty opponents were hard pressed to find support. I was not in attendance, but I doubt McVeigh had many mourners at his funeral. I doubt that there are many that genuinely lament his passing.
Yet McVeigh also serves as a metaphor for our inherent tendency towards intolerance. His actions show just what can happen when we carry our prejudices to extreme. McVeigh’s disagreements with society, whether spiritual or philosophical or corporeal, led to the very real act of war declared by an individual upon society. There is no discussion, there is no compromise, and there is no common ground. There is no peace. What McVeigh’s ulterior motives may have been at the time he committed his crime now can only be guessed at, but the very real fact is that 169 people died for his rigid and narrow-minded view, including McVeigh.
The Biblical scriptures tell us a number of times that God tries His gold in the fire, and separates His silver from the dross. Timothy McVeigh, and others like him, have caused me to re-define, (or refine), my point of view. At some deep level, I can sympathize with these men, in a way I am only too hesitant to admit. I too, was certain I knew the truth at one time, at least as much as I needed to. I knew God has a sacred name and how it is pronounced, I knew Jesus’ Hebrew name, I knew the sacred texts had been corrupted by the Romish church and politics, I knew pagan traditions had been merged with the original faith, I knew the system was as corrupt as the system it replaced. I knew it all! And by God, if you didn’t know it too, you were damned. And I wasn’t far from helping you along to your damnation!
According to the book of Revelation, there is going to be a time of tribulation, I knew the rapture is a hoax. I was preparing myself for the inevitable conflagration; be it nuclear, biological, chemical or natural. I learned about wild edibles and wilderness food preparation and storage, so I could eat. I was learning about herbalism, native healing arts and combat medicine so I could doctor myself. I had military survival, ordinance and demolition manuals, for obvious reasons. I was convinced I was one of the chosen, I wasn’t going to let God down, and I was going to survive. I was making damn sure I was prepared.
Then the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City occurred. Around the same time I was reading in Revelations, a verse dealing specifically with the time of Jacob’s troubles, and it said, “He who leads away into captivity must be led into captivity, He who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword, Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.” These verses could not have cut me any deeper, reaching into the marrow of my soul. As the story of Timothy McVeigh unfolded, I realized the path I had set myself upon. As that realization gelled and set, I began to consider what path I should take to correct my view.
When I looked at the matter with fresh eyes, I came to the realization that my zeal for my faith had led me to a place of intolerance, and that intolerance held the potential for my undoing. I was, and still am, zealous for my faith. I trust my eternal soul to no one but my Heavenly Father. I also realized that my intolerance was not the direction to follow.
Tolerance too, seemed to have its difficulties. I mean, there are all kinds of people doing all kinds of crazy things that I completely disagree with, and I have to be accepting of all of that? Some things people do are just so against what I believe, there is just no way I can justify to myself acceptance and still keep my sanity. Yet, the path of intolerance is even worse.
Then it occurred to me, tolerance is not acceptance. I have to allow others to make their own choices, to make their own mistakes, to learn their own lessons, to deal with God on their own terms. Just like myself. Now, I realize this is a philosophical ideal, and real world application is not always so straightforward, not always so “easy.” There are all kinds of people, and we are commanded to love them, even if we are not commanded to like what they do.
Sometimes we must deal with people who wish to force their views upon us. What do we do with them? My answer lay in the realization that we all must answer to God for ourselves, we cannot answer for any other, and no other can answer for us. I am not held accountable for the sins of my fathers, any more than my fathers are held accountable for my sins. If one wishes to force his views upon me, he will meet with stiff resistance. So it is, that tolerance is not acceptance. I must tolerate, I am not required to accept. Likewise, all of this works in reverse as well, I cannot force my views on anybody. Yet Christians are called to evangelize, to witness, to spread the Word. Yes, we are, but we are to do so in a loving, gentle manner, convincing and persuading, not forcing.
When we find our words falling on deaf ears, there is no sense in further wasting our breath. Once we have planted a seed, we cannot make it grow, that is up to God and the individual involved. The greatest witness a Christian could possibly present to anybody, is the example of his life. People do watch, looking for the first little slip up, to justify to themselves how frivolous and senseless Christianity can sometimes be. Christianity is a way of life, 24 / 7 / 365. Most Christians I have ever known, are only Christian when it is convenient. At other times, they do as they damn well please, figuring they can say a prayer of repentance and stick a couple of bucks in an offering plate and are absolved of the matter, at least until the next time. Non-Christians watch in disbelieving amazement, and shake their heads in dismay. And Christians wonder why there is such animosity against their faith…
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