W. E. Henley, 1849 – 1903, author of ‘Invictus’

In last week’s post I discussed the first half of Chapter 2 of Flow. here’s my take on the second part of Chapter 2.

it starts by examining the nature of the self, which is referred to as the dynamic mental representation we have of the entire system of our goals.

our own selves exist only in our own consciousness – in the consciousness of others who know me there will be other versions of it, entirely different to my own.

from the ‘Reflections’ series by Tom Hussey

he then considers what happens when attention brings a new piece of information into awareness.

psychic disorder is caused by information that is in conflict with our existing intentions, such as pain, fear, rage, anxiety or jealousy. these all force our attention to be diverted to undesirable objects, so we cannot use it according to our preferences.

however it is the self that interprets the raw information in the context of its own interests, and determines whether it is harmful or not.

the opposite state from the condition of psychic disorder is optimal experience, which he calls flow.  when the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly. there is no need to worry, no need to question one’s adequacy. but whenever one does stop to think about oneself, the evidence is encouraging: “You are doing all right.” the positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and inner environment.

he describes flow giving examples of both an assembly line worker, performing a mundane task as efficiently as possible, and of a lawyer involved in complex, challenging cases. in both instances the person has been able to organise their consciousness to achieve the optimal experience of flow, where the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.

following a flow experience, the organisation is more complex than before, or what might also be described as growth. not only this, flow is important because it makes the present instant enjoyable and builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to human kind.

one problem I am finding with this book is that it takes quite a clinical approach – as Feeling commented on the last book club post, it is a bit dry. I have no wish for this blog to take on the atmosphere of a cream cracker challenge!

I was wondering how I could illustrate his topic with my own example, and recollected ‘Invictus’, the most well known work by the Victorian poet W. E. Henley. the full poem can be found here, and the title of this post is taken from its last lines:

‘I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.’

according to my online researches (thank you, Wikipedia!) W. E. Henley suffered from tuberculosis, and wrote these lines while convalescing after having one of his legs amputated. it was initially thought that he would have to lose the other leg too, but it was saved by Lister, the great surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic techniques.

the stirring poem has been an inspiration to many, and has been quoted by, amongst others, Churchill, Mandela and Obama.

Henley’s life force was not dimmed by his struggles. a contemporary describes him:

“… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet. “

he was a friend of Robert Louis Stephenson, and in fact inspired the character of Long John Silver in Treasure IslandIn a letter to Henley after the book’s publication, Stevenson wrote,

“I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

having known ‘Invictus’ for so long I was enchanted to discover this link to another favourite book. but I was also greatly moved by the contrast between the poem I know so well, and another work, Margaritae Sorori, in which Henley envisages and accepts his own death with an equal strength of self.

I hope this illustrates something I feel very strongly – that we have an inherent need to evolve as we progress through our lives. not to be ‘better’, or because we are not good enough as we are – but because we will meet challenges on the path, and it is only by living and learning from them, that we can live our fullest, richest lives.

thanks for coming to tonight’s Book Club! any thoughts welcome.

happy reading! Prim xx

‘Woman lying on a bench with her dog’, Carl Larsson