How to Endure: A Lesson from a Good Book
Reading is a luxury, and one I no longer take for granted. Not only does it require time, but it also requires a certain amount of pure mental energy and concentration. I found that painfully difficult to find when I was living with an overload of anxiety. Like a puppy that doesn’t want to sit still, my mind ran towards distractions—TV shows, social media updates and news headlines. But instead of soothing my anxiety, I was chasing another thought, and another worry. As I’ve changed my relationship with anxiety, I’ve rekindled one with reading.
And I’m careful now about what I read before bed. And here’s what I’ve noticed, especially since I’ve replaced reading the news at night with nonfiction books: I have more concentration, a lot less stress, and I’m still learning valuable lessons about life, character, and how to cope in difficult times.
The fist two observations reveal something about how our thoughts and emotions are linked. It’s easy to forget that simple actions can lead to huge shifts in mental and emotional states.
But my last point about finding relevant lessons for the modern world in stories from the past has something to do with the kind of books I’ve chosen: all of them have been about real-life adventures, putting human endeavor against the formidable forces of nature. They reduce the struggle of being human to the most fundamental challenge of all—simple survival.
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, took me into the world of mountain climbing and the circumstances that led to the May 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest. Eight climbers died, and with the exception of the Sherpas for whom the trip was a source of livelihood, the dangers they faced were chosen. They knew of the cold, the ice, the risk of high altitude cerebral edema and pulmonary edema, the race against the setting sun, and made a gamble that the weather would hold and their energy would sustain even as sunlight faded and their descent to basecamp became further from reach.
Krakauer describes the mountain climber’s attraction to danger with this quote from A. Alvarez:
The more improbable the situation and the greater the demands made on (the climber) the more sweetly the blood flows later in release from all that tension. The possibility of danger serves merely to sharpen his awareness and control. And perhaps this is the rationale of all risky sports: you deliberately raise the ante of effort and concentration in order, as it were, to clear your mind of trivialities.
But the book is as much about the decisions that led to the crisis on the mountain and the culture of mountain climbing as it is about the motivation behind the climb, and in that, it reveals a great deal about the struggle to find fulfillment in life.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing exquisitely detailed the 1914 exploration of Antarctica that hit trouble in the most remote part of the world. The boat became locked in ice for ten months, including the season of 24-hour darkness, then it got crushed to bits, and the men faced the challenge of surviving on ice floes and making a journey across 850 miles of rough sea in tiny boats. The struggle didn’t end there. In fact, in this story, Shackleton gets defeated time after time, his crew physically exhausted, cold, sleeping on wet and degrading bags filled with reindeer hair, and yet they keep going. They go, they go, they go. And they endure.
I didn’t set out to compare these two books, but by the end of reading Endurance, I had to consider what each revealed about struggle in the particular eras and societies they represent.
Mountain climbing in the modern era is a brotherhood and sisterhood, but fundamentally it is about the individual. When to help a fellow climber in danger seems arbitrary—sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t—and who survives and who gets ensnared sacrificing his own safety in the effort to help seems to be as much a flip of the coin as it is a revelation of character and skill.
Then there’s Endurance. The book title takes its name from the name of the ship but the author could not have picked a word that more aptly describes the nature of the 27 men who lived through this saga.
Here, we see leadership and collaboration. Is that the nature of being on the sea when each man has his role and rank knows what it is? Was it the ethos of 1915, ensnared in Word War I but not yet disillusioned by it? Or was it the unique nature of the man leading this exploration, Earnest Shackleton, of whom it was said: “For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen, but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Shackleton was keenly aware of the greatest danger.
Of all their enemies—the cold, the ice, the sea—he feared none more than demoralization.
There’s a section near the end of the book when Shackleton and a tiny team have finally reached an island of South Georgia and had to figure out how to navigate the island to the side inhabited by whalers. Civilization was at last within reach. Consider how you feel at the end of a grueling experience—more than a year on the ice, living on blubber, uncertain of your future and sure that you’ve been presumed dead.
And then you fail.
The path mountain you climbed to reach your goal was the wrong one—and you have 4,500 feet to descend to make your way to right course. The wind is blowing and the fog coming in, without shelter and with night approaching, you would surely die. The end was so close, and not within reach.
Shackleton suggested he and his tiny crew slide down the mountain—like three tobogganers without a toboggan.
When they picked themselves up from the base, “They were breathless and their hearts were beating widely. But they found themselves laughing uncontrollably. What had been a terrifying prospect possibly a hundred seconds before had turned into a breathtaking triumph.”
By daybreak they had made their way closer to the whalers, enough to hear the sound of the factory whistle.
…for them, it was the first sound from the outside world that they had heard since December 1914—seventeen unbelievable months before. In that instant, they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition’s original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.
The lasting image I have, however, of the way these men endured hardship and persevered—again and again against each setback—moving through setbacks and tolerating pain—was one from early in their ordeal.
Trapped on the boat, while it was moored by ice in the dangerous 24 hours of darkness, the men might go mad. It was a condition described in the parlance of the day as “strange melancholy,” depression, despair, anxiety and paranoia.
The crew of the Endurance, however, made the most of their captivity. Each Saturday night, they were issued a mug of spirits. Each Sunday, they listened to music from a hand-crank phonograph. They had a monthly “lantern chat” delivered by the expedition photographer who showed slides of places he’d visited. To celebrate Midwinter’s day, they staged a variety show. When the sun appeared for a few hours each day, they ran a dog derby.
They turned to one another. A group as varied as they one could be, from “Cambridge University dons to Yorkshire fishermen.”
In the introduction of the book, Nathaniel Philbrick mentions that Lansing published his masterful book just as space exploration was making the heroics of the early twentieth century seem passé. No one cared about exploring Antarctica when the moon was calling.
But this is a story and a book for the ages—especially one that is filled with obstacles, detours, darkness, and doubt.
If you, like me, can slip into anxiety and a sense of helplessness by reading the headlines at night, I encourage you to change the message by reading a good book. Keep morale up. Try and try again. Turn to each other—not against.
Sarah Vander Schaaff is a writer, blogger and a mother of two from New Jersey, who has struggled with Obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as she can remember. Her courageous column in the Washington Post (“Obsessive –compulsive disorder nearly ruined her life”, January 4th) received international attention for its honesty and openness. In this regular series, Sarah will write about the mental health challenges we all face in day to day life.