Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
We humans just love ourselves an underdog story.
Our history and folklore are filled with fables of everyday figures that have risen above themselves in tough times. We love to glorify such personalities to no end, revering them to the extent where they become legends.
And in this way we remind ourselves of the human potential for excellence. Underdogs that succeed, ordinary folk that become the stuff of legends.
But, here’s an interesting fact that we neglect on a daily basis.
We’re all underdogs. And we all have the potential for greatness.
Think about it for a minute. We’re born with conditions and in situations that are beyond our control. We try and mitigate the effects of this inequality to some extent, but even then, at every step of our way, the odds have been stacked against us. We have to square off against diseases that can kill, accidents that can maim, and psychological setbacks that impede our growth. Throughout our life, we face a multitude of personal challenges, and while we’re doing all that, we’re speedily hurtling away on a blob of rock in the infinitesimal space, where anything and everything can be our doom.
In the face of all this though, we persist.
We survive, and leave behind stories, memories, and legacies that can outlive death itself.
We do it because it helps us achieve meaning in our lives. Since times immemorial, humankind has searched for ways to reach forth through the ages and leave its mark on the cosmos. Ingenuity, practical skills, and a little bit of luck have helped us go through our deepest and darkest times, and enabled us to emerge victorious.
And we do so by reaching deep inside and calling forth the potential hidden in us all. In nearly all spiritual traditions of the world, there is one common notion: the completion of the human spirit. This can be achieved in multiple ways; charity, prayer, penance, and/or punishment are all means to the same end. But, there is a higher ground where the human spirit also has to pass a test. That ground is where the underdogs/legends are made.
We are all constantly faced with tough situations in one way or another. Leaving aside occasions of mortal peril, we have to earn enough to support ourselves and our family, make time for our loved ones, keep focused in the presence of multiple distractions, prepare for that difficult exam, sit through that jarring job interview, wish for that new commodity, and most of all, aspire to love and be loved.
But doing all this is not easy. Sometimes, fear gets the better of us; failure, rejection, uncertainty, and insecurities all manifest themselves in different ways, and we fail to achieve our goals.
And this is where we humans find recourse in the hidden underdogs in ourselves.
In the face of rejection, in the face of failure, in the face of fear, and sometimes even in the face of death itself, this underdog spirit makes us go on and not give up.
It makes us believe in the human spirit. It makes us believe in a better world, in better versions of ourselves, where the accident of birth does not get to be the deciding factor in a person’s life. It makes us believe that with enough hard work and commitment, anything is possible. And with no special training, going about our quotidian routines, we create history.
Abraham Lincoln failed in gaining every political office he ran for before he became President. Thomas Edison had innumerable unsuccessful attempts at creating a light bulb before he succeeded. Newton failed to get his seminal works recognized by the scientific authorities of his time. Similarly, Michael Faraday didn’t even have a primary education, and Andy Warhol’s initial works were rejected by the MoMA.
These are just the well-documented cases, so we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to them. A primary school teacher that sparks the light of knowledge in young students, a trainer giving technical skills to the needy and the poor, a handicapped person who learns to live life to the fullest, a mother of four managing two jobs, a father who takes his children to the park regularly, anyone who does a random act of kindness daily… all of them, all of us, are the underdogs. No one will believe in us until they see us make it. So we must firstly believe in our story, and only then can we sing a song that the world has never heard.
I started this essay by quoting some lines from the poem Invictus by W. E. Henley, and it is only fitting that, to end it, we look at the last stanza now:
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.