Monday, March 30, 2009

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure

Sir Earnest ShackletonThis past week I checked out a documentary at the library that looked interesting. Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? I do all the time and this one looked pretty good. It was called Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure and it was amazing.

In 40 minutes it tells the story of Sir Earnest Shackleton, a polar explorer who set out to cross Antarctica on foot 100 years ago.

His wooden ship, The Endurance, carried 26 men plus himself and almost immediately after leaving South Georgia Island the voyage ran into trouble--the ship got caught in the ice and was frozen solid in an ice floe.

I won't give away all the details of the story but Shackleton's journey is considered by many to be the supreme feat of human endurance and remains unparalleled today. It's one of those stories where you wonder how people could survive to do what they did and how one person could make such a difference. Very inspiring.

Anyway, if you like great cinematography and an epic story then you ought to see if your own library has a copy--I think it was originally created as an IMAX movie and it's narrated by Kevin Spacey.

Out of curiosity I looked a little farther into Shackleton's history and found a few interesting pieces of information. It appears that he was one of those individuals that was constantly looking for the next get rich quick scheme. Not in a shady way necessarily but always looking for the fastest path to fame and riches.

It spoke of his boundless ambition and charisma but he was not someone who was terribly successful by today's standards. Financially he was a mess. One has to wonder what his family life was like, being gone on expeditions and being lost on ice floes tends to dilute the matrimonial strength you know? And after his most famous adventure in 1917 he began to drink heavily, eventually dying of a heart attack before ever discovering or exploring anything of importance on his own.

In fact his colleague, Captain Scott, with whom he sailed on an earlier Antarctic voyage, was the real hero of the day with much more popularity and commemoration than Shackleton ever received. Dying in relative obscurity Shackleton wasn't anyone of particular note until recently when motivational speakers and executive training programs discovered his story and have turned it to their advantage as an example of strong, courageous leadership and a "people first" mentality that is becoming so vogue in business circles.

But what I find interesting about Shackleton's story isn't his hipster executive leadership skills (I doubt he saw himself that way at all) but instead how different his day is from ours.

When Shackleton looked for recruits for his 1914-1917 voyage he put up a notice that read:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
The EnduranceCan you imagine someone using that as a recruitment poster today? Unions, OSHA, lawyers, you name it, they'd all be breathing down the man's neck with threats of lawsuits for even contemplating such a dangerous undertaking but Shackleton had 5,000 men show up for the job.

I can't help but wonder what it says about us as a people who have redefined the word "risk" to mean "the possibility of losing money." We've tried so desperately to remove danger from life--war should be free from casualties, every piece of property should be insured against loss, and no smart person should do anything without a waiver--that I can't help but think the process has removed more than just the threat of physical harm from our experience.

I'd prefer to live a life free from pain of course--who doesn't?--but facing physical danger and hardship strengthens the character and digging down inside and doing something brave and uncomfortable and risky makes you face yourself. If we're constantly trying to find the easy way, that path of least resistance we're probably missing out on unique opportunities for growth.

I guess I'm saying that we've become very, very soft. We panic about the economy in a time of record abundance, we gripe about our portfolios and not being able to retire at 65 when our grandparents expected to be dead at 65, we whine about the weather when we can get in the car and drive to the beach. We look at physical dangers--from pesticides in our food to every minute carcinogen on the market today--as things to be systematically eradicated regardless of time or cost while all the while we're running to therapists and doctors trying to be happy.

What would Shackleton think of us?

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Edi said...

It's amazing that he could have got men to sign up under those circumstances. But where would we be today without the men of old being so adventuresome?

Our library didn't have the documentary you mentioned but I found another one - it looks like it will be very long b/c it comes in 3 parts. I'm hoping it'll be something the kids will enjoy a bit too...

Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

just when I had my fill of crafts and recipes, you come out swinging. thanks.

Kara said...

Very interesting perspective.

I hope you keep writing until the (hopeful) day that we have kids old enough to learn from the great lessons you dig up. Otherwise, I need to learn some fancy archival tricks.

Janet said...

Very astute. I often think of what my grandparents went through and then I try not to complain. As much. We are soft indeed.
We're taking the kids for their first camping trip on Easter weekend. Shackleton's advertisement may sum it up. I'll let you know.

Lucy said...

I've seen that and it is fascinating! I too thought what fool would show up for that kind of a descriptive job. Probably the same people today who need jobs. Now I'd like to see it again. Netfilx? Are you up?

Octamom said...

I saw the IMAX film on Shakelton a few years ago--it was incredible. I subsequently purchased a few books for our homeschool library on his trek, including a great picture book that featured photographs from the expedition.

Thanks for jogging my memory on this--I need to break those out for the younger kids!

Chocolate on my Cranium said...

I read Shackleton's notice to my husband. He wants me to print it off so he can use in a talk sometime.

We often talk about how easy we have it even compared to our parents. I think there is a direct correlation to work, hardships and ultimately, happiness.

Melissa said...

Amen! Thanks for the perspective! I recently heard a guy say that one of the best lessons we can teach our children is how to struggle well. His point - there will be difficulties, struggles, unfairness, etc. that we have to face; the important thing is how we face them.

Miriam said...

I've long been wanting to read Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (1959) ever since my niece's mother told me that her book club had read it. Thanks for highlighting the movie. I think I'll read the book and then watch the movie you've recommended.

My knowledge of Shackleton until recently is that he designed the clothing worn by the American-North Russia Expeditionary Forces that served in North Russia in 1918-1919 (my great-grandfather was one of the troops). The clothing kept the cold out but was useless for fighting in, since they didn't allow for much freedom of movement.

CountessLaurie said...

It really makes me wonder what these men were leaving behind that the trip was a better option. Or maybe it was just a chance at adventure that is so readily available to us today.

Thanks for the great post. A lot to think about!!

Hazel said...

yesterday doing some research on languages (don't ask). In the reference source I was using was a lot of info I didn't need but couldn't help but see. For exmaple, life expectancy in Chad is 44 years!
Thereafter I tried very hard NOT to see the figures - a girl has to make a living - but I've not forgotten.

Scribbit said...

Miriama--That's probably correct since towards the end of his life he wanted to work in northern Russia but never ended up going (I think). He died in 22 before he hit 50. It was said his earlier adventure had strained his body too much. How interesting for your great grandfather to have that connection.

Jolanthe said...

We recently did a few weeks study on Shackleton for study of Antarctica and I have a bunch of resources about him on my homeschool blog. There are some AMAZING movies (too I seriously cried) about the adventure and all that happened.

Such an incredible story!


Kirby3131 said...

This is one of my husband's favorite subjects. I think he's read everything on Shackelton and watched every movie or documentary ever made. It is truly a fascinating story.

Hairline Fracture said...

Very thought-provoking post. I know I'm soft compared to my grandparents who lived through the Depression.

miriama said...

My daughter did a report on him earlier this year. We read the book together. She didn't like the book as it was a bit dry for her but we were both impressed with his story. And I agree with you...we have become a very soft society.

Summer said...

My husband and I saw the documentary last year on TV. We were both in absolute awe of everything Shackleton and his crew suffered. He was one perservering soul!

Anonymous said...

Two books by him about the polar expedition are available for free download at Project Gutenberg.

Mrs C said...

The advert reminded me of an advert I saw in a Paris "English speakers" want ads magazine just yesterday:

Somone to go back in time with me.
This is not a joke.
Write to [...]
You'll get paid after we get back.
Must bring your own weapons.
Safety not guaranteed.

I have only done this once before."

And you have to wonder...

JENNIFER said...

Shackleton is truly amazing.

I have read "Sea of Ice, The Wreck of The Endurance." to my kids and we enjoyed the documentary also.

And yes, we are a bit soft. I think about that when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder books let alone Shackleton :)

Organizing Mommy said...

My parents went to Antarctica and saw some of the places he visited. it was fascinating. I just love the way you write. I look forward to getting the newsletter. I hope I did the signup thingy correctly. If I don't get it in a few days, I'll re-sign up.