The resilience laboratory


I’ve spent an enjoyable weekend reading Charles Emmerson’s Future History of the Arctic. Charles, a friend of Global Dashboard’s, looks at the opening up of the Arctic and the scramble for its natural resources among the great powers of the North, and puts it into the context of the region’s history, from the heroic age of 19th century explorers like Nansen and Amundsen, to the present slightly less heroic age of Gazprom and Statoil.

He’s a great generalist, by which I mean he really knows his foreign policy, but he’s also able to bring in the cultural and literary history of the North Pole, to talk about how it resonates as a symbol and myth in different people’s narratives.

One of the things that most interested me in the book is the idea, found in the early chapter on Norway’s great Arctic explorers, that the polar regions are somehow a testing ground for character, a laboratory for resilience. Emmerson quotes Fritjof Nansen, the charismatic explorer, and in some ways the father of the Norwegian nation: ‘deliverance will not come from the rushing, noisy centres of civilization; it will come from the lonely places’.

This phrase sounds like something one would hear from a hermit monk of the Dark Ages, one of those hardy souls who ventured into the wilderness to found monasteries, battle demons, and push forward the boundaries of civilization.

Perhaps explorers are, in some sense, the secular hermit-saints of our time. They put their minds and bodies through unbelievable austerities, in order to push forward the barriers of civiliation, and also to test their spirits, to see what humans can endure, and to see what they encounter.

We are curious as to whether explorers, when confronted with the worst that nature can throw at us, have any sense of a benevolent deity behind all that natural hostility. Some do. Shackleton, for example, speaks of the constant sense of a fourth man walking beside the party of three who walked across South Georgia to get help during the ill-fated Endurance expedition. He speaks of a ‘Divine Companion’ who seemed to accompany them:

I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.

Others, however, come out of such experiences with a profound sense of the lack of God and the total indifference of nature to man’s sufferings. Joe Simpson, for example, who broke his leg and fell down a deep crevasse while climbing in South America, says in his account of the trip, Touching the Void:

I never thought of some God or some omniscient being that’d lean down and give me help, and I feel, actually, if I had believed that, I just would’ve stopped and waited for it, and I would’ve died. And so in a way, that’s why that loneliness, I think, came in. I was 25, I was fit, strong, ambitious. I wanted to climb the world and I was dying. There was no afterlife, there’s no paradise, there’s no heaven. It’s just dead. And I really didn’t want to lose that.

But whether you believe in God or not, the accounts of such expeditions are inspiring, and useful, because they reveal how the human mind operates in highly adverse situations, and what it takes, mentally, to get through such situations.

In these civilized and well-protected times, we’re interested to see how extreme situations change a man, how quickly the mask of civility comes off, and what they reveal about our real selves – how do we treat others, do we keep our own and others’ spirits up, do we help the weak and sick or leave them, do we shirk our duties, do we give up? These are not abstract ethical questions in those parts of the world.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard went on the winter journey to gather Emperor penguin eggs during the Scott expedition to the South Pole. Why gather penguin eggs? Well, why not. Secular sainthood, lacking in God and the Devil, needs an excuse to put itself through the austerities: empire is one excuse, science another. But what is really being tested is not penguin eggs but yourself.
The three men on the journey very nearly died, yet still maintained a very English civility and good fellowship with each other. Cherry-Garrard, the only one of the three to survive that expedition, wrote:
In civilization, men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment, and there is so little time, perhaps even so little understanding. Not so down South…These men were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed….Through all those days, and those which were to follow, the worst I suppose in their dark severity that men have ever come through alive, no single hasty or angry word passed their lips.

We’re particularly interested in how humans cope when things go wrong – that’s why we’re much more fascinated by the Scott expedition to the South Pole, where five men died, than in the Amundsen expedition, where no one died. That’s why they made a Hollywood film of the Apollo 13 flight, which very nearly claimed the lives of all on board, as opposed to a film of the original moon flight, where nothing went wrong.
We’re interested in how the mind works in these laboratories of resilience, and we ask these people to test themselves, find out, and tell us. Then, when we face our own less dramatic trials, we can ask ourselves, what would Dan Snow do?

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