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The Existential Moment – On Freedom and Responsibility


By William Ernest Henley

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.

Unfairly imprisoned for 27 years in apartheid-ruled South Africa, Nelson Mandela refused to succumb to the chains of victimhood, blame, and rage, instead embracing the powerful message of self-mastery and determination of the poem “Invictus.” For Mandela, “Invictus,” meaning “unconquered” in Latin, was a guiding light of inner freedom in dark times of brutality, isolation, and hopelessness. The mindset helped turn a prison into a crucible of resilience and a man into a beacon of inspiration of hope, forgiveness, and unwavering strength

At the heart of “Invictus” lies the powerful refrain: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Put into perspective by over a quarter century of unjust imprisonment, the mantra reminds us that we possess the agency to shape our destiny, despite oppressive circumstances. We can choose not to be a victim of circumstance but rather the architect of our outlook.

E-H Therapy theory holds that four existential givens (or paradoxical polarities) permeate the therapeutic space. Freedom, in particular, plays a critical role in healing and growth. It comes up in therapy in different guises, such as guilt and responsibility, wanting, wishing, and deciding, and so on. Notably, freedom stands in tension with the constraints on our being (e.g., biology, history, environment, conscience, etc.).

All too frequently, clients blame and seek advice. They focus outside, looking for explanations for what brought them to therapy or for what might help. This mindset limits freedom and, thus, therapeutic potential. As therapists, we are limited to offering support or maybe a bit of guidance.

However, assuming responsibility (e.g., how they contribute to their life’s circumstances) provides the potential for transformation. As Mandela’s remarkable story remind us, we, too, hold the power to shape our destinies and become the masters of our own fates. Helping on this journey, working with experience in the “here-and-now” and expanding presence, is a central part of our role as therapists.

Links to Related Blog Posts:

Read more posts about freedom in E-H therapy on EHI’s blog.

Read more posts about the existential givens in E-H therapy on EHI’s blog.

Read all the Existential Moment series posts on EHI’s blog.

Existential Moment Author: Scott Gibbs, LMFT, EHI Board Member-at-Large | Website: | Twitter: @Novum_Organum

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