In 1914, famed explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out from England on an expedition to cross the continent of Antarctica. He posted this brief notice: “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.”
Five thousand men applied. Twenty-eight men began the voyage.
The expedition did not (to put it mildly) go as planned. What transpired is breathtaking, and quite literally, beyond belief. The crew spent 635 days, surviving cold, their ship crushed by ice, months of darkness and living in make-shift camps in cramped quarters.
This week I watched the documentary, Endurance (which features actual footage, taken by expedition member Frank Hurley, and includes interviews with surviving relatives, plus archived audio interviews with expedition members). One day away from their destination, Vahsel Bay (in the Antarctic), surrounded by an unforeseen heavy ice flow, the Endurance halted. Stuck, the crew spent the winter months living on a stranded ship. After months, Shackleton made the decision to abandon ship and continue on foot (which proved fortuitous as they watched the Endurance crushed by the ice and claimed by the sea).
In lifeboats, the crew found it’s way to Elephant Island, with hope fleeting. Against all odds, Shackleton and five crew members boarded one small lifeboat (leaving the others for future rescue), spending three weeks crossing eight hundred miles of frigid, raging ocean.
After reaching South Georgia Island (ironically, where their expedition had begun over a year previous), the starved and frostbitten men found themselves on the wrong side of the island, which meant that they needed to cross a severe mountainous terrain, a journey never attempted nor completed before. Facing almost certain death that morning, Shackleton wrote in his journal: We passed through the narrow mouth of the cove with the ugly rocks and waving kelp close on either side, turned to the east, and sailed merrily up the bay as the sun broke through the mists and made the tossing waves sparkle around us. We were a curious-looking party on that bright morning, but we were feeling happy. We even broke into song, and, but for our Robinson Crusoe appearance, a casual observer might have taken us for a picnic party sailing in a Norwegian fjord or one of the beautiful sounds of the west coast of New Zealand.
(It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s quote, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” )
Endurance is an edge-of-your-seat sort of documentary. And will certainly curtail my grouses regarding air travel nuisances. It’s hard to carp (with a straight face) about a tardy arrival when you have not experienced frostbite.
This is not an easy story to render. There is no doubt that I cannot imagine the conditions these men endured. Even Shackleton could not have anticipated the James Cameron or Steven Spielberg-esque special effects.
But here’s what hit me.
There are times when we feel at wits end.
There are times when we are certain, we cannot handle this.
There are times when we feel strong enough to handle anything, and wonder why we fail.
And there are times when our insides feel like dust, and even then, find something to carry us through.
And I wonder: Where do we go and what to we draw upon when life is bigger than we are?
Invited to guest preach at another parish, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor asked the priest, “What do you want me to talk about?”
“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he told her.
Taylor writes, “I did not have to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.” (From An Altar in the World)
There is an endless litany of opinions. And solutions.
Even so, we try our best to tie up loose ends, or handle our impasse with the tricks of the trade. I like Tim Farrington’s take, We fast, we pray, we take up a marital art. We spice our diet with ginseng and eat only vegetables grown in Zen-monastery gardens. If we have been meditating one hour a day, we mediate two. We hang the appropriate crystals and buy new furniture to address the nagging issue of feng shui. We see a past-life therapist. But none of it is any fun. The fountain that bubbled within us has gone dry, and we’re just going through the dusty motions now.
There is something about our need to see a payoff for our efforts, isn’t there? As if we can overcome this awkward part of our life.
But here’s the deal: Awkward or inconvenient or downright intolerable, we are offered an invitation.
What Martin Heideger called dasein, or being in the world…
not a reference to existence, but to our capacity to enter fully into the day.
Being in the world.
In other words, we are no longer numb.
Even the not so fun parts.
Sadly, we live in a world detached from feeling our connection to the moment. As if we are hooked up to life support, with machines and distractions.
Sometimes we know it. Sometimes we don’t, or do not have words.
What is at stake is not withdrawal or protection or more armor. What is at stake, is understanding that spirituality is about immersion. A spirituality that begins with the sentence, I never noticed that before.