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Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s Lessons on Endurance

After wandering among ancient Roman sites in Asia Minor this past June, where 2000 years ago young churches struggled with the seductive pull of a secular world, I recalled that one of the great lessons of the Book of Revelation where we read about these churches is endurance.

Those young believers — faced with opposition from hostile neighbors and aggressive pagan religions — were told again and again that they must endure. Plus, they were promised that in enduring all kinds of problems and pressures they would “overcome.”

In some Christian circles we hear a lot about “victory”, “purity”, “faith”, and “holiness”. All good. But when do we hear about endurance? It is a neglected Christian virtue because it doesn’t seem to fit with our optimistic, positive-thinking, success-oriented culture. How can just getting through, sticking the course, hanging in there, and persevering match the more exciting virtues that reach for the heights and conquer all obstacles?

So, after touring Asia Minor in June, I settled down in July to read Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, first published in 1959. As I became increasingly enwrapped in this blockbuster adventure story about the 1914-1916 journey of veteran explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton to cross the Antarctic Continent, I realized that just getting through a crisis is always preferable than giving up. Also, I saw in Shackleton himself some qualities of leadership that I wish I had more of myself.

The edition of the book I read has a foreword by Dr. James Dobson which might hint at there being a lot of overt Christian content since Dobson headed up the solidly Christian Focus on the Family organization. But as he himself points out, while many of the men on Shackleton’s expedition were believers, and while Shackleton himself firmly believed in “Divine Providence”, there is little evidence that any of the 56 men on the journey were pious. However, they endured, as did their leader Shackleton. It was in their enduring under the most incredible circumstances that makes this book gripping reading, and a lesson for believers and especially their leaders in all ages.

As the 20th Century dawned there was a wave of exploration that included a race to the South Pole. In 1903 Robert F. Scott headed up the Discovery Expedition that was the first British effort to explore the untamed continent of Antarctica. Ernest Shackleton was along on this journey. Then in 1909 Shackleton himself led an expedition that got within 112 miles of the South Pole. This spurred Scott to try once again to reach the South Pole, which he did on his Terra Nova Expedition of 1912. However, when he got to the Pole he discovered that Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, had beaten him by a mere 33 days.

But Shackleton was not to be undone. No one had ever crossed the whole continent of Antarctica, and so, ever the explorer, he raised funds and hired a crew to head off in 1914 on what was grandly called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. What he and his men endured has become the stuff of legend, and finally now after decades of hearing about the great exploits of Robert F. Scott, the world is learning that Shackleton was perhaps the greater explorer, and certainly of the two  more to be admired as a leader.

The book was for me a page-turner. It was based on the diary recollections of these men, and together with photographs the story has now been brought to the attention of the reading public. Of several books, and even a movie, the one I devoured was Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by journalist Alfred Lansing.
The story is really not about one journey, but rather four. Why four? Well, the first part is the story of how the Endurance, as the ship was christened, after being a mere 45 days out from the island of South Georgia got stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. Nothing the men could do either with the boat’s engines or with their own picks and axes was able to free the ship. Eventually, the ship broke up and sank leaving the men, plus three sailing dinghies, a bunch of huskies, and their supplies stranded on an ice flow. The story of how they got from there to Elephant Island covers the first half of the book, and that alone could give you nightmares since they braved ice, snow, sleet, darkness, vicious Leopard seals, and potential starvation.

Once on inhospitable Elephant Island, Shackleton decided to leave with 6 others in the fastest of the three dinghies and make for South Georgia, braving the roughest and most dangerous seas on Earth – the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica. His aim was to alert the world to the plight of the Endurance, and effect a rescue. Sailing often in total darkness with the danger of gigantic waves, unforeseen glaciers, killer whales, and a hurricane that nearly sank them and actually did sink a large ocean-going ship not too far away, they made it to South Georgia. However, despite the pinpoint accuracy in hitting the island itself, they discovered that they were on the wrong side of the Island.

This necessitated a third leg of the journey, or a third journey: across snow-capped, mountainous South Georgia on foot to reach the whaling station at Stromness. How Shackleton and two others managed this 22 treacherous mile journey in a mere 36 hours would by itself be legend were it not part of the larger story. Remember, these three men were cold, wet, ill equipped, haggard, (of course shaggy and unshaven, and black with dirt and grime) and close to starving.

Finally, there was the rescue effort: First the men on the other side of South Georgia needed rescue, and then there was the treacherous effort to rescue the men left behind on Elephant Island – hundreds of miles away. The amazing part of the overall story is that all lived to tell the tale, and Shackleton himself became a hero (though unfortunately outshone by Scott for decades).

Today universities offer courses in leadership using Shackleton’s people-centered approach to leadership as a model, and pointing to his ability to keep order in the midst of chaos. To many who marvel at his ability to keep the men motivated, hopeful, confident, and at peace with each other under the most trying circumstances one can imagine, he has become something of an archetypical “non-anxious leader.”

This is a good read, exciting, and personally challenging. On one occasion Shackleton gave his own mittens to the Expedition’s photographer, Frank Worsley, who had lost his. Shackleton suffered frostbitten fingers as a result. Need I say more?

~ Peter C. Moore, D.D.

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