What is Success? Alfred Lansing’s Endurance Helps Answer the Question

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This is part of my Summer Reading 2.0 series.

—mild spoilers ahead—

Alfred Lansing’s account of the 28 men aboard the ship Endurance headed for Antarctica is captured vividly in his non-fiction book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

It tells the story of the explorer Ernest Shackleton with an oddball crew of men who make their way south first by ship, by boat, by sledge, and even, by foot. Pushed to the brink of death by extreme nature, their survival can leave an impression on individuals whose lives are exactly the polar opposite (mine!)

This book was recommended to me, and an extremely difficult read at first. I slugged through the first portion, wanting to quit, but once I neared the middle, I found myself following along, page by page by page.

Fun fact: Lansing graduated from Northwestern. #purpleswag

My reflections:

The ship is christened Endurance, after the mighty strength required to persevere all the way to Antarctica. Though that’s the name that the ship takes on initially, it’s the people on board that eventually live up to the expectations set.

They become Endurance long after the ship itself is just a “torn, twisted framework of wood.”

Perhaps Shackleton, the overly confident captain, doesn’t realize this immediately, but he eventually bites his lip, the first physical sign of acceptance after a denial that ensued whenever the topic arose of abandoning ship.

Shackleton, before the journey, had devoted hours of time and a flurry of concentrated effort on the ship’s construction…he feels as though he’s abandoning much more than a wooden framework; he’s letting go of safety and sturdiness in its most tangible form.

So yeah, they abandoned ship, but they never abandoned each other.

 

This is a book about human nature, about a group of men unburdened by material desires, separated from society. These men had to simplify their life as the weather grew increasingly intense, lightening their load, keeping only what was vitally important.

It’s a tale of survival. It address the sacrifices made necessary by the circumstances that life threw.

The dog team that they’d grown emotionally attached to had to be sacrificed eventually, their flesh eaten. The rations, the extreme, real possibility of starvation waxed and waned over their perilous journey that made even the most civil of men ponder the idea of cannibalism.

Seeing their fellow comrades in such poor conditions (one set of clothes and freezing cold is very unforgiving) and pushed beyond the point of exhaustion, the men would constantly sacrifice what little they had to keep them alive.

 

Though at first these men seemed to only want monetary success and social status, in the end, they were just fighting for their own life. Only their nearly unfailing spirit brought them to their goal, unrivaled in optimism and cooperation. Quarrels that broke out were always snuffed out, and hope was never fully lost. Given the harsh environment, the character that they demonstrated was a miraculous precondition to their trip to safety.

In a battle of man vs. wild, is it just a coincidence that floe (a sheet of drifting ice) sounds like foe? Probably, but you get my point.

In such a short time, land conquerors were reduced to haggard savages, conquered themselves by the wild, desperate for any sign of life. Their ability to adapt reveals much about who they are, and who they forced themselves to be.

These men would never be the same again, inside or out. They would never take anything for granted.

At the mercy of Mother Nature, they continually made difficult yes-no decisions and even decisions at the margin (how much fuel can we spare for this injured man? how long should we wait to escape by boat from this floe, as winter is coming in quickly?) that could make the difference between life or death. The decisions were altered drastically by changes in weather, and the direction in which slabs of ice (damned floes) drifted.

 

This book is more story-telling than analysis, and leaves that privilege to the reader to take these men’s journey into context. As an individual who abhors the outdoors and refers to adventure as a mental journey made possible by a notebook and a pen, it’s tough to relate to this on a literal level. But as the drama started to snowball, I took away some life lessons.

Leadership, for example. Shackleton exercised the perfect amount, never harshly berating his crew members, and always considering potential fights and ways to coax out the best in each man.

Monotony also; it stared them in the face day in and day out for months without end. Meal breaks came to be subtle breaks in monotony, apart from mere intervals of sustenance.

Mental endurance as well! Imagine the mental horrors they had to endure when drifting in their boats for days without water? To want something so badly, to have something that looked like it inches away from your body but to not be able to drink it, for fear that it can dehydrate you and further exacerbate your painful thirst? To constantly be alert to impending disaster, to sleep fitfully and lose circulation in your toes, or wonder about your next meal?

 

Even if you don’t generally like non-fiction (me) and originally think that this book is irrelevant to your life (me), I guarantee that there’s more than one valuable idea to take away from this read. Head to the library or buy it now!

And I may have found a free, online copy?? Is this even legal?


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