“The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.” — Sophocles
As the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles so masterfully observed more than two and a half millennia ago, the greatest griefs people suffer are those of their own making. This is not to say there aren’t objective outside factors that can trigger tears running down your cheeks, but the biggest misfortunate is often caused by your own choices and mindsets.
Nelson Mandela, South African freedom fighter, spent decades languishing in an island prison, cut-off from the outside world. Yet somehow he was able to turn that experience into a positive thing. In his 1995 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”, the then recently elected first black South African president reflected on how to deal with life’s challenges. As a human you have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death many times before you are able to reach your desired mountaintop.
“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.” — Nelson Mandela
This type of mindset is what separated Mandela from many others. While they cracked, he was able to carry on. Keeping straight on the path was not easy. Yet for those times when he was feeling down, Nelson applied a few mental tricks to push through.
Invictus or how to carry through when circumstances block your path
If you remember the movie “Invictus”, there is one scene where the character of Nelson Mandela as played by Morgan Freeman invites the captain of the South African rugby team to his presidential palace. The South African president then hands Matt Damon’s character a poem, explaining that it helped him get through tough times.
That poem was “Invictus” by the 19th century British poet William Ernest Henley. The title is a Latin word which in translation means “undefeated” or “unconquerable”. Nelson would frequently read it out loud in his jailcell.
When confronting adversity, the words of this poem serve as an uplifting balsam on the soul. The first verse starts off with a powerful dose of gratitude, thanking the all-mighty powers for a mind that doesn’t get stopped by setbacks.
“I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.”
Henley, the author of the poem, had a horrible childhood. Suffering from tuberculosis, he had one of his legs amputated. With his other leg in danger of going the same way, he decided to undergo an experimental procedure which luckily saved it.
It is the second stanza that describes Henley’s mindset. His “head bloody, but unbowed”, the words divulge how to carry on in bad circumstances beyond your control. The future is uncertain, often full of horrors, yet it should find you unafraid.
How to shape your own destiny
This Stoic outlook on life as encompassed in the poem, has helped people like Mandela who found themselves in conditions beyond their control. It’s the last two lines of the poem that reflect this spirit of self-reliance and mental strength.
“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
Fate is a strong word used to refer to someone’s destiny. Sophocles, who professed that your life’s greatest griefs are often caused by yourself, authored many tragedies exploring human nature. This observation on fate was made in his play “Oedipus Rex”.
The hero of that story, Oedipus hears a terrible prophecy, and spends his entire life trying to outrun it. The irony of the tale is that it is in fact his character traits that make his foretold fate into a reality. He is often rash, quick to action, with his tragic flaw being hubris, or too much pride.
Yet, the ancient Greek view on fate is not often as gloomy as it might appear at first glance. As ancient philosopher Heraclitus stated, “character is destiny”. While outside factors can have you face difficult circumstances, it is your mindset that determines whether you sink or swim.
The great thing about character is that it is something you can work on. The realization that destiny is in your hands can serve as a way to revitalize your life. Keeping in mind that you are the master of your fate can push you towards staying in the fight when hope seems lost otherwise. Sometimes, this is how impossible victories are made.
Humbleness of spirit is the key to character
When I was younger, my ego often got in the way. My reluctance to adopt the beginner’s mindset and instead the need to be stubbornly set in my ways, prevented me from achieving greater things. While I would often blame my failures on outside circumstances, part of the fault lay with me.
Sure, in some parts I was given a bad hand by the master card dealer, but I would often play badly even with the cards I got. The change came when I woke up to all the mistakes I was making. While it might not turn back the time, the new sense of agency that I have keeps me carrying on.
The past is the past, and you should not dwell on it. Make a new beginning, and carry on. Learn from your mistakes, and apply these lessons to your life.
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” — Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela, as a man he failed time and time again. He committed mistakes, yet what was great about him was the fact that he realized the errors of his ways and changed himself. According to this legendary statesman, the greatest glory lies in rising up every time you fall.
This humbleness of spirit is the key to character. This is what will help steer you through the intricacies of fate. There are many circumstances beyond your control. Life will often knock you down. The important thing is to get back up. While this will sometimes require the force of sheer willpower, this mental strength is what separates the winners from the also-rans.
Find a crutch to carry you through
Your greatest enemy is often yourself. Time and time again, this is what legends teach. Just like Luke Skywalker descended to the dark cave in Dagobah, only to find that the evil lord he was fighting was in fact himself. Sometimes you too will have to go down into your innermost cave in order to realize where your greatest barrier lies.
One of my turning points came when I picked up the book “The Art of Learning” by Joshua Waitzkin. Written by a former child chess prodigy turned martial arts master, it contains several passages that opened my eyes. Beginner’s mind, no ego, always learning, these were the three things that I took away from reading it.
As people, we are often afraid of losing control. Several times in my life, I have been at the point of fear. Not being able to find a job after graduating. Working a dead-end job for little money. Spending long time alone without having friends to rely on. Unfortunately, sometimes these things you don’t really have power over.
While trying to work hard, I would often find myself lost, questioning where I was going. Disappointed with the direction my life had taken, I would fall for grief. At times like these, you need a crutch to carry you through.
For Nelson Mandela, it was reading poems and applying their lessons to his own situation. I turned to writing. I had always been reading a lot, but the act of putting my ideas down has served as a way to release pressure. It helped me fight off my depression, and my grief.
Armed with a new mindset of no ego, and beginner’s mind, I have been able to keep my greatest bouts of sadness at bay. No longer tying myself to certain results has helped me to view my life as a learning journey. You either win, or you learn.
When you are feeling a loss of control, pick something that you can use to carry you through the moment. It’s always good to have a crutch as a way to keep your willpower when the world is seemingly overtaking you. It can be something as simple as a poem that you read whenever your motivation is fading.
In a letter to his wife from his jail on Robben Island, Nelson summarized well the mindset needed in order to overcome difficulties. The same thing that can break one person, can be the factor that creates another one.
“Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” — Nelson Mandela
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.