Friday, March 24, 2017

A Pleasure to be Alive

In 1915, 28 men are stuck on the Weddell Sea, ice floes in Antarctica. Twelve hundred miles lay between them and civilization.

A year earlier, they began their journey, buoyantly, excitedly, as members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition whose goal was to reach Antarctica and traverse the ice on foot. As they approached, their ship was closed in by moving ice. Eventually the ice crushed the ship and the men were stranded. It would take two years of extreme hardship, constant cold, threat of starvation, before they would make it back to England.

Yet, from the diary of first officer Lionel Greenstreet, we read, "One of the finest days we have ever had...a pleasure to be alive."

A pleasure to be alive.

What could possibly have precipitated such happiness, such contentedness? Under such dire circumstances?

I ask my students these questions and give them three answers to choose from:

a.The men had been forced to develop a degree of self-reliance greater than they had ever imagined possible
b. They had hunted and killed an abundance of seals and penguins and were set for weeks.
c. They’d returned the Endurance and salvaged extra tins of biscuits, jams and dried peas.

The room quiets. The students contemplate. Then one by one each group gives its answer.

My head droops. They've all answered wrong.

I can't give them the right answer, they need-need to figure this out themselves. I ask, "Where does deep joy come from? Can it come from external things or must it come from within?

Ahhh. They get it. The collective realization reveals the answer is a: The men had been forced to develop a degree of self-reliance greater than they had ever imagined possible.

Preceding his journal entry, Greenstreet had spent several days scraping and curing a piece of sealskin to resole his boots. The satisfaction of learning, trying, digging in deep had brought him a kind of joy that caused him to exclaim, It's a pleasure to be alive.

As I contemplate a demanding endeavor, I hear Greenstreet's optimistic words written a hundred years ago in the worst of circumstances: It's a pleasure to be alive, and I'm ready to begin. Fulfillment doesn't come from sitting on the couch.