What It Really Means to Be Captain of Your Soul

This weekend, while I was MIA, I was visiting my sister, Christa, and her husband in Dayton, OH for the holiday. When I was down there, I was finally able to see the much discussed film “The Hunger Games.” I haven’t read any of the books but Christa has so she filled me in on the missing details she felt I needed to know. Even without the added information, it was an excellent movie. What impressed me the most was the character of Katniss Everdeen.

Just in case you’re as clueless as I was before chatting with Christa, “The Hunger Games” is set in a dystopian society in which what was the U.S. is split into 12 districts besides the Capitol. Each year, a boy and girl are selected from the 12 districts to play in The Hunger Games, which are like a modernized gladiatorial game. The game is not complete until all but one of the contestants have died. The main characters, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, are from the poorest district, District 12.

While most of the contestants have been selected by lottery, Katniss offers herself as tribute in order to save her little sister whose name was actually drawn. She is the only contestant there by choice. But this is only a small part of what makes her so remarkable.

The night before the games begin, Peeta tells her that he’s afraid the game will change him.  He says, “I just don’t want to be another piece in their games, you know?…I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.” Katniss says that she can’t afford to think that way, because she needs to survive for her sister, but it’s exactly how she plays the game. She never compromises her character by any of her actions during the game, when it ends it’s obvious that they don’t own her. (I won’t give any specific details so I don’t spoil it for you if you’ve yet to watch it).

It’s obvious throughout the movie, and especially at the end, that she and Peeta are going to become symbols and leaders of rebellion and revolution. But what I love is that her rebellion is more incidental than intentional. Her acts are revolutionary because she naturally lives outside of their power by being above their rules. By being willing to sacrifice her life, before she’ll sacrifice her character or take a life without reason. The value she places on others’ lives, at times to the risk of her own, is another part of what makes her so admirable and so dangerous.

Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation I had with an old friend when I was at Fordham. He said, “Why is Nelson Mandela talked about like he was such a hero? He didn’t do anything heroic. He wasn’t really responsible for abolishing the Apartheid.” Soon after that I watched the movie “Invictus.” That film makes it clear why Mandela is a hero.

He spent 30 years in prison, when he got out and came into power, when he could’ve sought vengeance; he established a new government based upon forgiveness and reconciliation. He proved himself to be more powerful than his captors, by being free from hatred and valuing others’ lives above his own. In the film his character says, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” One could say, he did not allow himself to play the game by the rules he was meant to be constrained by, just like Katniss.

To me, these characters illustrate both true heroism and true freedom. There is this notion of freedom (very much inherited from the Enlightenment) that to be free means to be without attachments to other people or things. To be without responsibility to anyone outside of yourself and without an emotional investment in the world around you. Truth be told, pursuing this kind of ‘freedom’ creates monsters who are either slaves to apathy or to their own ego/self-preservation. Katniss and Mandela illustrate a more profound type of freedom.

They were not controlled by obligation or the will of another (especially the will of those wanting them to live by fear or hate). Their actions were directed by a genuine caring for others and respect for life that goes beyond moral and social duties. They lived out the nobility of their souls. No oppression can rob anyone of this freedom who will not compromise their soul for their safety. I believe that this is what is means to be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.

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