I’m writing this while tired. Very tired. We have a four-month old who still wakes up twice a night for feedings, and my nine-to-five job is actually a six-to-five. Once I’m home from that, I spend a few hours chasing around my four-year-old daughter, who expends enough energy in an hour to power the Vegas strip for a week. Then, after everyone’s asleep, I approach my keyboard with red eyes and a wrung-out mind.
And yet after reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the sad violin I play for myself has gotten quite a bit smaller and quieter.
The book tells the story of English-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s failed crossing of Antarctica in 1914. The expedition went awry when his ship became trapped in a field of pack ice and crushed to pieces before his party could even reach land. Shackleton and his crew spent the next 500 days trying to survive the most hostile environment on Earth and trying to make their way back to civilization in three poorly equipped, 20-foot boats.
The punishment they endured was staggering, travails so severe that they would be laughed off as unbelievable if anyone survived them in a work of fiction. Months camping on ever-shrinking ice floes. A full year in frigid air and wet clothes. Weeks near starvation. Five sleepless days at sea, battling choppy water and dodging icebergs that threatened to sink their boats. Boils. Frostbite. Blisters that froze, forming pebbles of ice under their skin. Months eating little besides seal and penguin. A 720-mile journey across the world’s most dangerous seas in a glorified rowboat. Waves like skyscrapers. Bailing, watching, bailing, watching. Days of thirst without clean water. A full day rowing furiously against the current to avoid treacherous rocks. A traverse of a craggy, inhospitable island of stone and ice with nothing but a fifty-foot rope.
Endurance was published in 1959, so the language is somewhat antiquated in spots. However, Lansing’s prose is clean and crisp and tugs the reader along without speed bumps. This book was gripping throughout in a similar way as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. But even the torments Krakauer’s Everest climbers suffered were far shorter in duration.
Endurance forced me to reflect on the human capacity to withstand suffering, both physical and mental. It gave me a new perspective on the unfathomable coziness we First Worlders are surrounded by every day. Climate-controlled dwellings. Running water. Warm clothing. Abundant, nutritious, inexpensive food.
This security and convenience has put much of our resilience into hibernation. We avoid the outdoors if it’s colder than 50 degrees or warmer than 90 degrees. We drive three blocks to buy groceries, instead of walking. We hire out physical chores whenever possible. But that strength is still there, untapped.
With that in mind, that knee I jammed the other day isn’t so sore anymore. The tightness in my wrists from constant typing seems trivial.
And, yeah, I’m still tired. But suddenly I don’t mind so much.