Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Are We Still Indomitable? Homo Invictus Fifteen Years Later

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Are We Still Indomitable? Homo Invictus Fifteen Years Later

Article excerpt

Abstract

In 1996, I gave a CPA presentation in connection with receiving the Donald O. Hebb Award. The paper was entitled Homo Invictus: The Indomitable Species, and the topic was something that relatively few psychologists were studying: human toughness and the ability to benefit from stressful experiences. I used examples from my own research, which for decades has focused on how people react to extreme, unusual, challenging, dangerous, and traumatic environments and experiences. In the current paper, I consider societal and historical developments since 1996, examine data related to a different set of difficult situations, and conclude tentatively that indomitability continues to be a prominent human characteristic. In the past 15 years, psychologists have increasingly recognized this fact but it should be incorporated as a matter of course in studies dealing with stressful experiences if we want to understand the full scope of human reactions.

Keywords: environmental challenge, societal change, positive psychology, resilience

In 1996, I had the honour of receiving CPA's Donald O. Hebb Award. My presentation on that occasion was entitled Homo Invictus: The Indomitable Species, and the topic was something that was rarely emphasised in psychological research: human toughness and the ability to benefit from stressful experiences. That talk, published a year later (Suedfeld et al., 1997), was structured following the framework of a 19th Century English poem, Invictus, by William E. Henley. The poem is an affirmation of the human ability to endure, and to maintain control and chart one's own course, even in the face of severe stress.

Invictus

"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."

- William Ernest Henley

Henley knew from first-hand experience what he was writing about. When he was 12, tuberculosis of the bone led to the amputation of his left leg; his right leg was also infected, and in his 20s he spent 3 years in a hospital before he knew it would not have to be amputated also. He wrote Invictus die year after the death of his 5-year-old daughter.

I first learned the poem when I was a junior high school student in Harlem shortly after my father and I emigrated from Europe at the end of World War II. Most of my classmates were from poor African-American families. I have sometimes wondered whemer our teacher had selected Invictus for us to memorise with die idea of encouraging me class to bear with and rise above our environment - in fact, to be indomitable. The two words are synonyms: invictus is Latin for unconquerable, and according to the 2009 American Heritage Dictionary, indomitable means "incapable of being overcome, subdued, or vanquished; unconquerable." Invictus inspired Nelson Mandela during and after his years of imprisonment, and a recent film about him borrowed the poem's title.

A Quick Look at Indomitability in 1996

In 1996, I reviewed the psychological literature concerning four research areas in which I was then active. These were labouratory experiments on so-called sensory deprivation, which was thought to cause cognitive and emotional symptoms akin to temporary psychosis; field work in the two polar regions to study the people who worked there, considered by many to be maladjusted to begin with and further impaired by isolation and the harsh climate; archival content analyses related to decision-making under stress, widely criticised for not following the rules of statistics and logic; and various methods applied to the study of survivors of the Holocaust, whom many psychologists and psychiatrists considered to be irretrievably scarred by their traumatic experiences. …

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