Hold Fast To Your Optimism

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”

Thomas Paine

Imagine finding yourself stranded in a polar wasteland with no sturdy shelter or communication with the rest of the world. Totally cutoff and totally isolated. To really be out there in a frozen desert bobbing on floating ice floes. Living day by day with just enough food rations to survive freezing winds and wet clothing. And yet, you’re responsible for a crew of 27 men who are praying for you to deliver them from an unimaginable predicament with no foreseeable way out?

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 set course for the Antarctic aboard The Endurance for the Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition. An attempt to restore Great Britain to the annals of Antarctic polar exploration after Roald Amundsen and his crew of Norwegians became the first expedition to reach the South Pole. The bespoke vessel, a sturdily built Norwegian triple masted vessel Christened “The Endurance”, was designed for the world’s roughest seas and to help the crew reach Antarctica.

Before the days of weather reports and satellite navigation, the crew of the Endurance found their vessel immobilized in thicker than anticipated pack ice as they reached the Weddell Sea. At first, the ice sheets could be navigated around but eventually the winds and the waves pushed the ice together. The Endurance eventually found itself trapped and surrounded as the wind and waves exerted suffocating crushing force. Ice sheets would split or pop up and overtop other massive ice sheets from the pressure of winds and waves. After a year of having the vessel trapped, The Endurace eventually succumbed to intense pressure. Like a person in their death throes gasping to live, the Endurace twisted, creaked and groaned before its beams cracked and the vessel sunk.

After witnessing much of their supplies disappear with the vessel to the bottom of the ocean and accepting their fate of living on floating ice floes that would break apart, move and pop up, the crew still maintained a sense of optimism. As the winds howled and the men were soaked and sprayed with freezing weather, hunger and boredom as daily companions, hope was not lost. Shackleton projected a competent and stoic facade, never betraying the fears and heavy pressures he placed on himself for the responsibility of the lives of his crew members.

As food supplies rescued from The Endurance before it sunk ran dangerously low and ice floes drifted perilously from land, Shackleton and his crew left the floes and made their way toward Elephant Island with small rescue boats left over from The Endurance. This too was a dangerous journey as crew moored to icebergs that threatened to capsize at any time.

Eventually, Shackleton and a crew of five left the rest of the crew behind at Elephant Island. With just a tiny 22’ open boat and a large amount of testicular fortitude, Shackleton’s boat, the James Caird, travelled over 1400 kilometers during 16 days in waves that regularly exceeded 30’ of height in some of the world’s heaviest and most treacherous seas.

Shackleton and his crew reached South Georgia Island, a whaling station, to seek rescue for his crew stranded at Elephant Island. I can only imagine what a sight Shackleton would have been to behold. The crew was rescued by whalers. Miraculously not a single crew member died at any time during the expedition.

Shackleton and his crew lived with uncertainty but never despaired. Battling hunger, doubt, ferocious Leopard Seals, panic and fear of death, the crew never projected declining morale. To lose hope and mentally quit would have meant certain death for all.

Shackleton’s expedition resembles the trials faced by Odysseus in The Odyssey.

After battling in the Trojan War for ten years, Odysseus longed to return home in Ithaca to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. Fate had other plans.

On his way home, Odysseus and his crew stop at an island and sleep in a cave where cyclops happen to live. The cyclops blocks the caves entrance and eats several of Odysseus’ crew. Odysseus gets the cyclops drunk and finds a way to murder the cyclops and escape. Poseidon, God of the Sea, was father to the cyclops and becomes wrathful towards Odysseus. After facing storms and ship wrecks, Odysseus is within sight of Ithaca and leaves his crew in charge of the vessel while he rests. Unbeknownst to him, his men open a bag gifted from Aeolus, keeper of the winds, that blows the ship and crew far away from Ithaca as to undo much of the progres they had made from Troy. Odysseus would encounter more trials and near death experiences as he would again make his way back to his wife in ithaca.

Fearing Penelope may have married a suitor, and lose his status as king of Ithaca, Odysseus continues to face the tests brought to him from Poseidon. After longing to return to his wife, Odysseus comes home to find his home full of suitors vying for Penelope and draining his resources. Odysseus formulates a plan with his son Telemachus to slaughter the suitors, regain his kingdom and reunite with Penelope.

Like Shackleton, Odyssey never stops believing he will return home. Hope and determination fueled their journeys. Desire was stronger than any obstacles.

Perhaps in our own lives it may seem like we’re up against terrible odds. Classic literature and biographies of great men offer us examples of perserverence and triumph.

We’ve survived every single trial we’ve faced despite how we may have imagined the outcome.