When Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton attempted his famous quest to the Antarctic in 1914, he and his team never dreamed the expedition would turn into an almost three-year struggle for survival. Their ship, appropriately called “The Endurance” became trapped in the frozen waters where it crumbled slowly and agonizingly under the force of ever-shifting ice. The crew escaped with only the bare necessities and survived by living on large tenuous packs of ice that began melting with time. Eventually, lifeboats had to be launched in search of “Elephant Island”, an inhospitable place where most of them would await rescue. Shackleton left more than half his men on “Elephant Island” as he and a small team navigated 720 nautical miles in the most dangerous waters on the planet to the inhabited island of St. Georgia where they eventually found rescue.
In the darkest days of their struggle, Shackleton wrote in his journal that his greatest fear was not to die of the cold, from some animal attack, or an unforeseen disaster, but rather his greatest fear was for them to become demoralized. They could stand to lose almost anything except the loss of five simple words, “We are going to make it”.
Demoralization happens when we become disheartened and lose hope. We can encounter almost anything, put up with almost anything, endure almost anything as long as we have hope. Demoralization can exhibit itself in three different ways.
Resignation is simply when we quit inside our hearts and stop caring about what’s important. This may not be readily discernible on the outside, but can be identified by a subtle loosening in areas where we once held a strict code.
The high levels in our standards and disciplines we once held ourselves to now become slack when we give up. There is also a general dullness that occurs. Any vibrant activity that once put a spring in our step is now muted by the loss of hope. Gloomy routines replace once passionate life goals. And like a hobbit, happy in his reclusive hole, we become vexed by anyone around us who has high motivation and passion.
Running away from ourselves is another way of showing that we’ve become demoralized. We seek out any avenue that takes us mentally, emotionally or spiritually anywhere else but “here”. We will do almost anything that distracts us from looking in the mirror. We become Escape Artists who avoid responsibility and intimacy. We can escape into a bottle, a drug, a toxic relationship, or some illicit forms of diversion. Even though escaping is ultimately self-defeating, we still tend to do it.
By “Reclining”, I mean that we get comfortable where we are, oblivious to how close we are to inner death.
It had been over two years since Shackleton launched his ship, “The Endurance”, on the famous voyage. Shackleton and his team had finally landed on St. Georgia Island but still had to cross some treacherous mountain terrain on foot as they pressed their way to a well-known shipyard. Shackleton decided that he and two others would set out from where their boat had docked, leaving the rest of their team to make camp and await rescue. The impassable terrain left the three men so drained that they had to stop and rest. They plunked down wearily on the frozen tundra and almost immediately two of them were fast asleep. As Shackleton began dozing off, a dreadful feeling came over him – the feeling you get when something is terribly wrong and you can’t put your finger on it. He began to feel warm and cozy (a sure sign of hypothermia) and realized that they were freezing to death. Shackleton shook himself awake and saw that he had only been sleeping five minutes. He woke the others telling them that they had slept half an hour, and that they need to get moving. The men did not realize at that moment that Shackleton saved their lives by not letting them die in the warm but deadly bosom of comfort.
The expedition, now more famous for their perseverance than for their failed voyage, survived because they refused to become demoralized during their long ordeal.
The “take away” here is simple: Lose anything and everything, but never lose your hope.