Saturday, April 14, 2012

Captain of her own soul?

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.

This poem by William Henley is Nelson Mandela's favourite. It is said to have been the inspirational words that kept him going whilst he was incarcerated on Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town for 27 years.

It is entitled 'Invictus', which is also the name of the film by Clint Eastwood on Nelson Mandela's involvement in the Rugby World Cup win by a united South Africa in 1995.

Captain of my soul.

A man who has his ducks lined up is noticeable by everyone around him.
He really seems to be the captain of his own soul.

I attempted to describe this phenomenon in this post. It seems to be the essence of (complete) manhood.

But... of course there must be a female equivalent of this.

But what I am trying to work out is, is this woman the same as this man, i.e. captain of her soul, mistress of her fate...

Or is she in fact, the opposite?
Because whilst the captain of his soul is quintessentially masculine, his female counterpart has to be feminine, no?

Can a woman be concurrently feminine and be 'captain of her soul'?

It is not a trick question.

Masculinity is all about mastering what is controllable. A task that has a beginning a middle and an end. Beyond that, he is not interested.
I am not saying that controllable equals easy. Far from it.

But controllable is defined by logical laws.
For example, if you study hard, you will usually get good grades. There is the odd chance that on the day of your test, you will skid on a banana skin and end up in hospital with a broken coccyx and miss the exam altogether, but this would be unusual and unlucky.

Femininity is all about what is uncertain and undefinable. Attempting to reach what is not controllable.

In many ways, a woman is more at the mercy of fate than a man.
It is arguably easier to pass a test or hold down a job than to navigate certain tasks of womanhood.

In relationship land, and I am referring here to the wider realm of interhuman relationships, not just romantic ones, there are two distinct ways of keeping people who lock horns frequently from killing each other.
There is 'peace keeping' and there is 'creating harmony'.
In most families, especially large families, the job of 'keeping the peace' usually falls to a man. According to what I have observed (and someone please correct me if I am wrong) it is kind of like a 'policeman' or 'referee' type role. This intervention is usually short, sharp and to the point. The terms of negotiation and or reconciliation are usually laid unceremoniously on a table. The warring parties can either take it or leave it.
 The task of 'creating harmony' is arguably more draining. This task usually falls to a woman. She may not be the most 'senior' woman in the household. In fact, the Matriarch could well be one of the warring parties. Harmony Hannah could be a daughter, daughter-in-law, sister...any woman.

This woman will not be content with laying out abstract terms on a proverbial table. She will go backwards and forwards several times between the parties, individually and together, delving into the depths of their feelings and emotions. She will leave no stone unturned.

These are generalisations, of course, but it describes fairly accurately, the modus operandi of both sexes.

This is why I think 'outcome independence' is much harder for a woman than it is for a man (although it is very useful if a woman can master this somehow).

Peter Peacekeeper will consider it 'mission accomplished' if he can get two warring parties together in one room and lay out his plan for reconciliation for both of them. I think he will really see it as 'job done.' He can walk away with his head held high. He has done the controllable part. Now it's time for a drink.

Hannah Harmony's work is not yet finished, at least not in her eyes. Until the two parties are hugging each other, calling each other by terms of endearment and going on each other's Christmas card lists, she ain't finished.
'Outcome independence' does not come easy to women.
But perhaps there is a good reason for this which Nature should be given credit for?

Can a woman really be 'captain of her own soul' given that she seeks to 'control' that which is often uncontrollable?

I have noticed that you can only really have control if you let go of control. Yet another paradox.
Maybe the 'kings of cool' are only so 'in control' because they let go years ago.

And the rest of us still clinging desperately to every little bit of control we can muster in our lives are looking at them and wondering, 'How does he do that?'

So, can a woman 'let go' like men can do?
Won't that make us all...well, men?

Should a woman even seek to be captain of her own soul?
What will happen if she does?
Will that take something away from her femininity?

I think whoever came up with 'Man proposes, God disposes' had women in mind. It is especially true of a woman's life.
Women are usually the ones who have to uproot themselves to follow a man's dream.
Yes, this dynamic is often reversed in our modern world, but does this usually end happily? I would venture a short answer: no.

A man can really plan his life to the finest detail. It is technically possible. A woman who remains 'feminine' usually cannot.
Beyond marriage, a woman's life is 'not her own' once she has children. Sometimes quite literally. More so than for a man, who could walk away, and some do.
Yes, there are some women who do walk away from their (small) children too, but I think we would all agree that this is in the minority, albeit seemingly rising in number.

When I said 'quite literally' above, I had a specific case in mind.
I was thinking of St. Gianna Molla. She is a modern era saint. Born in 1922, she became a paediatrician in 1949. I would probably guess there weren't too many of her colleagues that were female in Italy in 1949. Married to an engineer, she was pregnant with her fourth child when gynaecological complications arose necessitating a choice between an abortion, hysterectomy or an attempt to solve the gynaecological problem with high risk to both mother and baby.
She chose the latter. Even though her faith would not have precluded a hysterectomy even if an unintended consequence of that would have been the automatic death of her baby.
St. Gianna Molla had the baby - a girl, also called Gianna - but died a week later. She is thus the patron saint of mothers, physicians and the unborn.

2 questions: I know what the Catholic church thinks of her actions - she was afterall canonised in 2004 - and The Church will not canonise just anybody. She was canonised because she gave her life for another that was dependent on her. Gianna Jr. also  became a doctor by the way :-)
Is this a case of 'no-one will sweeten the bitter pill for me'? A hysterectomy would have been 'acceptable' in the eyes of The Church. But Gianna Sr. was having none of it. Save the baby at all cost.
Or is this a case of child before husband - which is a recipe for disaster in its own right? Did St. Gianna Molla put her unborn child before her husband and all the rest of her children because that last child literally depended on her for its life - whereas husband and older kids did not have this dire dependency on her - and is this what The Church admires about her?

'Letting go' in this way and submitting to fate can sometimes make a woman very vulnerable. If she 'chooses wrong' she can end up in a place she never bargained for.
In the case of St. Gianna Molla, she believed she chose 'right' and the Church agrees.
So, even though she died, she was a winner.
But some (most?) may not agree that death is a win.
Or any other suffering for that matter.

Some women who have 'been there' because of a man want to make sure their daughter never 'goes there'.
Hence the advice 'never ever be in a position to need a man. Kill your own darn snake'.

But is this really good advice? Really?
I don't know.
Anyone shedding some credible light on this for me will be highly regarded.

Should a woman accept this vulnerability? Because it is inseparable from true femininity?
Is this the 'curse of Eve' that all women are born with and start trying to shed like from birth?

Should ST be shot for even bringing up this topic?

Although I am myself a woman, I can't help feeling that not only have I entered a room I should not, I have opened the female locker room to all and sundry.

But I feel compelled to ask this question. I feel I cannot take another step in life unless I have an answer to this question. It is that important.
Any other woman feel the need to explore this?

I really hope I am not the only one.


Anonymous said...


I confess that the poem Invictus leaves me cold. Not to get into a big religious debate with anyone, but I don't buy into the rugged individualism implied by the imagery of being the only master of one's fate and the only captain of one's soul. It's not accidental that the speaker is a skeptic who only ironically thanks "whatever gods may be" and believes that beyond the world is only "the Horror of the shade."

So if we use the captain metaphor for the wonderful St. Gianna, we should be clear that she was one who trusted in a compass that pointed to a higher authority than her own will.

That's my drive-by comment for the meantime, ST. I'll be back for the rest of the discussion later, after I've had more time to process your thoughts on women and outcome independence.


just visiting said...

Danny has a great poem on his site called Roll the Dice. Anthem of my life. If you're able to link it, it's worth a read.

Not a feminine viewpoint.
But it's one that resonates. Been there done that, have the t-shirt.

I can relate to the baby/mother situation. Nearly died giving birth to my first child. Technically, I was dead, but came back. Hubby was upset and telling the hospital staff to save me. I had just gained consciousness but couldn't talk. In my head, was yelling to save the baby.

Vulnerability has always been a bit of an issue for me. I don't do vulnerable for just anyone, and yes, that makes me rather unfeminine in that regard. I've tried to push myself on that. Still, unless someone is willing to build trust with me, I'm not going to just lay that out there. On the other hand, trust earned means that I don't do it by half measures. If you've got me, you've got the keys to all the doors.

Caelaeno said...

With all due respect, I think you might be making a distinction that isn't real. First, I wouldn't say that vulnerability, but the /willingness/ to be vulnerable is the necessary quality. Vulnerability is a function of circumstances--under a given set of circumstances, you will be vulnerable to /something/, whether you admit it or not--but the willingness to admit vulnerability, the humility to express need when necessary, is a function of the person.

Second, I would argue that this is a necessary /human/ quality. Haven't we all known or heard of distant fathers, men that would not admit vulnerability--in this case, the vulnernability you expose when you admit the power a loved one has over you--and caused irreparable damage in their children's lives?

One may argue that this willingness to admit vulnerability, while necessary, is an essentially feminine characteristic. A trick that the boys have borrowed from the ladies, so to speak. I would counter that the ability to admit vulnerability is simply a symptom of strength, whether feminine or masculine.

Ultimately, it comes back to this idea of who is captain of your soul and what that truly means. If by "captain of my soul" you mean totally in control, then God is the only possible captain for our souls--we simply do not have the information necessary to say that we are fully in control. Even with planning out the wazoo, there will always be unexpected circumstances that are as welcome as a marching band at a funeral. Best laid plans of mice and men, ect. and ect.

However, I would actually interpret the phrase a slightly different way--instead of "in control of", think "responsible for". It's a very thin line, but please bear with me as I attempt to explain what I mean. =) An individual cannot reasonably feel in complete control of his (or her) fate. However, they can feel responsibility--the duty to act appropriately given the circumstances they find themselves in. We cannot always help the opportunities we are given, but we are in control of what do with those opportunities. One example is the captain of a ship--he can't help it if they find themselves in the middle of a storm, but he can direct the ship in such a way as to come out relatively unscathed. No one else is to blame for our poor choices, and no one else can take credit for our good decisions. We are the captains of our souls.

That is the heart of our freedom, this heady mix of opportunity and culpability. It's what people mean by liberation, or self-empowerment--this recognition that it is our actions, not our circumstances, that define us. We are not defined by what others do to us, but by what we do in response.

And so we return to vulnerability. The refusal to express love or fear, to admit vulnerability, is rooted in fear. Those unable to express love are this way because they are terrified that the beloved might not love them back, that they are unworthy of being loved. Here's the important bit: this fear only has power over them because they are allowing the actions of other people to determine their idea of self-worth. If your sense of self-worth is determined internally (or by a God that as already determined you lovable, for other Christians), then external rejection does not mean that you are unloveable. It just means that particular person doesn't love you. (Sad, but it happens.).

Therefore, the ability to express vulnerability is a sign of inner strength, as it shows you recognize that someone else's response to this expression reflects on them, rather than on you--and you will not be damaged by this rejection. It hurts, but it's not earth-shattering.

Really, the feminine/masculine bit is /how/ you respond--is it with grace? Is it with kindness? Are the social implications uppermost in your mind? =)

Anyways. Just my perspective. Hope this is helpful.

just visiting said...

It's a beautiful mindset. I've tried to employ it over the years. With roadkill results. LOL. Could be doing it wrong. Fear doesn't seem to be the issue. Attracting sociopaths on the other hand.........

just visiting said...

@ Caelaeno

Actually, I should point out that I don't think that you're wrong. You're right.

The power of feminine vulnerability reaches to people it touches people. It's a strength that enriches the lives of others through connection.

In many ways, I look at it the same way that I would look at a country that has freedoms, liberties and abundance. Their lives are rich, and they are able to touch other beyond them and enrich them. But, this ability to live in such a manner requires trained dangerous men with guns and tanks willing to kill to protect that. Take them out of the mix, and that beautiful oasis of cultivation becomes roadkill.

This ties in I think with what ST is saying about the man in the family being the cop. and the woman resolving conflict through connection.

Though I think that it's possible for unconditional feminine vulnerability to reach out to all and sundry, I think it's better served and protected by a masculine energy type by her side to protect her from those who would abuse it.

Anonymous said...

Earn it.

The Navy Corpsman

Spacetraveller said...


Welcome to The Sanctuary!
Nice to see you here. Having encountered your sense of humour elsewhere, I have a feeling we will all have fun with you around ;-)

You make excellent points.
I like how you stipulate 'willingness to show vulnerability'. You are right in that there is a difference between that and simply 'being vulnerable'. Thanks for that point.

Also, I like how you reframe 'in control of' to 'responsible for'. Nice touch!
I do agree that this is very much a feminine characteristic. But whilst I know some men can 'borrow' it from time to time, I don't see too many examples of this...could a man help us out here by providing an example of this?

@ JV,

Wow, humbling to hear you almost lost your life in childbirth...
And especially intrigued to hear how you responded to the event in your subconscious state...

Your comment about selectve vulnerability strikes a chord with me too. I never advicate being vulnerable to just anyone. That's clear folly.
But even in 'selective' vulnerability, one can make mistakes.
Your comment about attracting sociopaths had me laughng out loud...except it's not funny.I realise you are being dead serious about a poignant issue.
One that I have trouble reconciling myself to as well.

I have been having a bit of discussion with Dogsquat about this issue in the post which precedes this.

Thanks for the tip about Danny's poem. I liked it too.
I see no conflict with femininity at all in that poem. I think it could very much apply to a man or a woman!

@ Bellita,
I must say, I had the same reaction as you when I came across this poem. Hence this post.

I feel the same way as you do about St. Gianna Molla, even though I feel compelled to play 'Devil's advocate' to some degree in order not to seem one-dimensional on this issue.

Like 'bang-to-buck ratio', I am having trouble getting past this one.

Am I just getting my knickers in a twist here?
Is this a case of 'all to do about nothing'?

@ NC,

Um, didn't quite understand your comment. Could you please elaborate?

Anonymous said...

Want to be captain of your own soul? Want to be peacemaker or harmonizer?
Want to do anything, be anything?

Earn it. Whether it's good grades in school, accomplishments of a professional nature, or captain of your own soul, whatever can be done, will be done, if you work hard towards a goal.

And, in that I mean that biological facts aside (men cannot give birth, for example) women and men are essentially equal in any given field of endeavor. You are what you is. You might not have the smarts to become an astrophysicist, but all the pretty words in the world cannot stop the human spirit.

Many many words have been written about the new feminism, where women strive to become like men, at least in the workplace. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that most women can become LIKE men, usually in the worst possible ways, if they really want.

The question is not so much, can a woman become captain of her own soul, but does she want to? Self sacrifice for another is something we all admire, but to say that a woman MUST be vulnerable and striving for harmony at all times, is rather a limiting rule, by my opinion. This is the crux of the first feminists' theory, that a woman can vote and hold office and do many of the same things a man can do, and still be a woman. Today, we rarely hear a counter opinion to those first feminist theories. Second wave feminists wanted equal opportunities in education and equal pay for equal work. Again, few argue against this now, but the last wave of feminism has perverted this into twisted mirror image of patriarchy, where males have become the second class citizenry.

Therefore, my answer is another question... do you WANT to be captain of your own soul, assuming that being that will make you more masculine, more like a man? A better idea (I like to think it's better) is to rename the concept. How about becoming the Mistress of your own Destiny?

Bellita points out that certain religious objections to claiming control over your own life can cause a conflict. This goes back to the discussion she and I engaged in, on your post about God's Game. If you MUST surrender your will to your God, then it's probably not a good idea to claim to be captain or mistress of your soul/destiny. I understand such emotions and mental mindset, but I sure as heck will never comprehend it fully.

I surrender to no man, to no woman, to no god. As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam." It's enough, for me.

As Caelaeno said, control is a difficult thing, and responsibility might be a much better word. That is, you are responsible to Your Own Self. Break a law, and the government may disagree, but break your own rules, and you'll find no one else to blame.

Therefore, earn it. Be what you want to be, do what you want to do, hurt nothing in the process, and stay true to yourself.

The Navy Corpsman

Spacetraveller said...

@ NC,

"Be what you want to be, do what you want to do, hurt nothing in the process, and stay true to yourself."

Amen to that.

Caelaeno said...

@ST: Thanks! =)

@just visiting: I suppose I should've added a discretion advised warning to my comment. The point (which I think you got) was that the willingness to admit vulnerability (especially in the form of expressing love) is indicative of strength, NOT that you ought to publicly post your social security number, or give your house/car keys to the next homeless guy you see (yes, yes, exaggeration, but it's so much more fun that way). Everything in moderation and all that.

I would agree with you that one is more able to reach out when you know there are people backing you up. However, I personally find it easier to reach out to other people when I am fortified by positive social connections--which are almost always been provided by other women--rather than the idea that my brothers will go beat an offender up. Really, and this is something that I would classify as a very feminine characteristic--the ability to guide/support another person in a search for emotional health. Girls typically love lending a supportive shoulder, and those we rely on (in this way) are typically our best friends. Boys, on the other hand...well, it's very betaizing to say the least.

Maybe the difference between female/female and female/male relationships (from the woman's POV) is that women look to other women for emotional protection and to men for physical protection.

Spacetraveller said...

@ Caelaeno,

"Maybe the difference between female/female and female/male relationships (from the woman's POV) is that women look to other women for emotional protection and to men for physical protection."
Oh yes...
I figured this out pretty early in life: Never seek emotional support from a man.
In over three decades of life, I haven't managed to achieve emotional support from men - even the men who love me most, i.e. my own family!
And yet, the minute they think I am in physical danger...well, they see red...
At whatever they perceive as posing that danger to me...

Somehow not only have I come to accept this status quo, I find I prefer it this way.

(Just as well - might as well like what you've got. Especially if it looks like you ain't gonna get anything different :-)