On Being a Towering Figure

The towering figure called Nelson Mandela has died.
This is the poem that got him through prison:

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.
~ Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

Did Mandela know as a boy that he would be towering?
Did it come to him in jail?
Did he know what he was in for?
What he would shoulder and carry and marry?

He said: “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

What determines small? What determines towering?
A script at birth or the one we write ourselves?
Are there costs of playing large and none of playing small?

As kids at play, we jump to be the hero, the king, the queen, the princess. Perhaps the wicked witch. Not the girl in the back of the alley nobody ever sees.

What do we amplify in ourselves to play it big and silence to play it small?
Conversely, what do we amplify in ourselves to play it small and silence in ourselves to play it big.

Nelson Mandela gave himself messages beyond the ones he was given and that determined his way. I will settle for the life I am capable of living.

He got to be right. We all do.Whatsoever we choose comes packaged with a voice within us that draws all the corresponding stuff of living to carry us along. Towering situations, opportunities, challenges, emotions, events, language and people for the one with a passion for towering. Small situations, opportunities, challenges, emotions, events, language and people for the one with a passion for small things. What deals do we make with our voices. What bargains with our souls? Or is someone else steering our ship?

We’re all of us a blank page at the beginning. Powerful beyond belief. Until we know something for ourselves, we take the belief of others. So what separates a towering figure from a small one? Nothing. Nothing but belief. Either way we choose it, it will take our full effort. The effort to be towering; the effort not to be. The rich man has his impoverishments; the poor man his riches.

Nelson Mandela lived the life he believed he was capable of living. Fate met him on the way, on the highway, because he believed it would. His voice said to him:

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

Today I ask myself: Am I?


About Karen Kohler

Born in Frankfurt and raised in New York, Karen began her professional music career in Austin. Since returning to NYC in 2001, she has been a leading exponent of the cabaret arts as performer, director, producer and historian. Her performances blend multiple genres - classical, cabaret, jazz, blues and folk-rock - in six languages. She is founder of the award-winning ensemble, Kabarett Kollektif, and producer of Kabarett Fete, a celebrated international cabaret festival. Karen gives private lessons and conducts master classes in stagecraft, the art of public speaking and creativity coaching. View all posts by Karen Kohler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: