Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 26, 2021
Centuries back, when cartographers reached the edge of the known world on their maps, they occasionally draw a sea monster and label the area “Here there be dragons.” It was a creative way of saying “We don’t know what’s over here.” It was uncharted. There were unknown risks that way. It can serve as a remarkable apt metaphor of experiences like grief and trauma.
I am, of course, going to talk about how this pandemic has been like sailing in uncharted waters. But the metaphor applies for so many other situations of fear and suffering in our lives. Whether it is a personal crisis like illness, sudden job loss, or the death of a loved one; or a more systemic tragedy such an unexpected experience of systemic oppression or an abrupt impact of capitalism run amok – we can be caught off guard and thrown unexpectedly into uncharted waters. This ongoing pandemic is certainly one such example we are all experiencing now. We are off the edge of the map. We are in uncharted waters. Beware, here there be dragons!
Thankfully, many of us have a healthy capacity to manage risk and uncertainty. Many of us can deal with quite a bit, can be resilient, and can reframe things to keep moving forward when faced with trouble. And there are also times when it can be too much, when we can become lost and floundering in the chaotic surge of trauma and uncertain difficulties. I want to talk about what we can do at such times.
During our Time for All Ages this morning, I showed the children an old navigation instrument, a sextant. I talked with them a bit about the geometry involved and how it works. But more, I shared with them how we can ‘find our way’ by the stars and that the stars are like our values, our guiding ideals that can lead us through uncertainty. With the stars as our values, the tools and instruments such as a sextant or a GPS are like the people around us who can help us discern and sort out our situations with us.
When I say we have people around us who can help, I mean a friend or family member or therapist, all good choices when seeking help with your trouble. I would like to suggest someone a little different. I want to lift up an exemplar from history. Historic figures can serve as exemplars with lessons to help us through our troubles. Sir Ernest Shackleton is one such person who is like a navigation instrument for me, helping me understand the impact of my values in a given situation.
If you are unfamiliar with Shackleton, let me offer you this brief sketch of him. He was a polar explorer. He and his shipmates set out to cross Antarctica in 1914. A few years before the Endurance sailed from England, two other explorers had already reached the South Pole within a few weeks of each other. Apropos of my larger point, Amundsen is considered the first man to have reached the South Pole, Scott is considered the second, arriving 5 weeks after Amundsen. But in truth, Scott was not the second, he was the 6th. Amundsen was part of a team of five people to reach the South Pole in December of 1911. History ought to be more attentive to the team rather than just the intrepid leader.
My point in bringing up that small tangent is to highlight how Ernest Shackleton is remembered, not for crossing the continent, but for bringing his entire team back home alive. I don’t look to Amundsen for wisdom in troubled times. I look to Shackleton. When I am struggling with this pandemic, for example, I think on Shackleton and how he brought his whole team home.
It is worth noting, Shackleton was an adventurer. He was not just someone who stayed safe and therefore kept his team safe. “A ship in harbor is safe from the storm, but staying in harbor is not what is ship is for.” Shackleton took great risks, not foolish risks, but certainly risks.
The advertisement Shackleton put out to secure a crew for the endurance is amazing to read today: “MEN WANTED: FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY, SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL, HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.” And with that he had 5,000 people apply. Ah! The call to adventure and exploration! Shackleton was able to pick his crew carefully.
The 28 men aboard the Endurance sailed south from England through the Atlantic to South Georgia Island, a small bit of land near the tip of South America. The ensuing expedition can be considered a trip away from that small island and back, lasting roughly a year and a half. The Endurance left South Georgia in early December 1914, crossed into the Antarctic circle a week later, and about 5 weeks after that, was well and truly trapped in the solid pack ice less than a hundred miles from the continent itself. In all that happened after that, the expedition never reached Antarctica proper.
I find it most interesting that this expedition to cross Antarctica through the South Pole is not remembered by what they failed to accomplish but by the remarkable thing they did instead. They failed to cross the continent. It was another 40 years before a team succeeded in crossing the continent through the pole. What Shackleton accomplished instead, the reason he is remember is that the expedition team survived and made it home. 6 weeks in, he and his team were stuck the remainder of the 18-month story was spent working to get back out alive.
It is very similar to the Apollo 13 space flight in that regard. NASA described the 1970 Apollo 13 mission a “successful failure.” They did not accomplish their original goal and the mission almost ended in disaster, but they survived. The ingenuity, resourcefulness, and commitment of everyone involved made it possible for the astronauts to return to earth alive. They never made it to the moon – that part was a failure. They learn a lot about how to respond to the extreme crises and everyone made it back home – that part was the success.
This is one of the lessons I learn from Shackleton. We should still strive, still take risks, still attempt for the wild and improbable goals. And if it all falls apart, we can step back and make new goals, and keep going.
We are in this pandemic now and our congregation has chosen to take the risk of meeting in person indoors. Many UU congregations are making many different choices in this regard. Some are meeting outside only, others are indoors, in person and online like us, and others are online only.
There is no guiding rule from the UUA at this point because each congregation’s situation is a little bit different in terms of what’s happening in the communities around our congregations and in terms of the needs and ‘capacity for risk’ of the people in the congregation. The in-person component of our worship is a risk we’ve chosen to take at this point. It is good to take risks in life. It is also good to make changes when new information about that risk comes to light. That’s what Shackleton did. That’s what I aim to do. I’m not saying we are making a change to our in-person worship today, but I am saying it is something we know may become necessary.
For now, we – like Shackleton – are settled in to our new normal. For the men on the endurance, the situation was a waiting game. They were stuck in the ice. Shackleton imagined they might have to spend the season there, waiting for warmer weather. That became the new plan, to wait it out. It turns out they were trapped in the ice for ten months, drifting with the pack.
Shackleton had invested a lot of time and energy keeping the spirits of the crew up. He set work for the crew, creating and maintaining a camp on the ice pack as well as keeping the ship in good shape and ready for when the ice broke. He visited with every member of the crew regular. In the evenings they played chess and bridge, sang songs, and occasionally put together events like feasts and skits and a derby.
It was the end of October 1915 when the ship was finally crushed by the pressure from the ice; and a month later it sank. But that’s not the end of their story. We’re only halfway through their tale. The second half of their voyage occurred without their ship.
When the Endurance finally broke apart and sank, Shackleton ordered them to abandon the ship. He said to the crew: “Ship and stores have gone – so now we go home.” Just like that, the plan to wait out the ice with the ship fell apart and Shackleton came up with yet a new plan. They took the three long boats and struck out, dragging the boats across the ice or rowing through the treacherous ice lanes. The ultimate goal remained unchanged: bring the crew home.
That new plan lasted another five months as they made their way north slowly and carefully, Eventually, they reached the end of the pack ice and struck out into the open ocean. They spent another week dodging icebergs and ice floes and made it together to Elephant Island. They set up camp again. Then five of the men took one boat and sailed 800 miles back for South Georgia Island to secure a rescue for the rest of the crew.
All told, it was an amazing journey filled with danger and heroism. Part of what we learn in the story is how we always have another choice we can make from moment to moment. We have within us the capacity to tap into remarkable strength and perseverance. And when we stick together and take care of each other, our chances of success expand.
We have been in a crisis – several crises actually: the Pandemic, fascist attempts to deconstruct our democracy, Institutional Racism pushing against our attempts to bring a progressive vision into reality. Our values lead us to speak the truth about what is happening. Our faith calls us to participate in the struggle, but not get lost in it. There is a lot going on that could cause us to get overwhelmed and lost.
The example of Shackleton reminds us that it is worth it to take risks. Such risks are the heart of living. We are also reminded, however, to not be foolish in our risks; We do well to have our risks tempered by the wisdom of science and guided by the commitment to our communal wellbeing.
Shackleton also reminds us that when we have made a plan and put ourselves into it fully, it is possible the plan will fall apart. And when that happens, our work is to let go of that old plan in favor of new information, to let go and make a new plan.
And most poignantly for this pandemic, and perhaps no less poignant for our nation, the ultimate goal is to keep the whole team in mind as you go. This is heartbreaking to me because so many people have already died from Covid-19. But in my heart, that is still my highest guiding star – to keep the whole community in mind. We may cross the continent, we might not. We may meet in-person from now on, we might not. We may grow as a faith community, we might not. We may dismantle White Supremacy in our culture during my lifetime, we might not. But this I know: we will see each other through this as best we can together. We will take our ship into dangerous and uncharted water. And we will do all we can to bring us all back home.
In the end, Sir Ernest Shackleton summarized the expedition of the Endurance thus:
“We had entered a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment, and high hopes. We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’ We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man”
And I notice we here in our congregation entered this pandemic a year and a half before with high hopes and a well-found building on the verge of being refitted. We’ve not had the harrowing journey Shackleton experienced, but we have had our share of struggle and suffering. Our journey is not finished. But with the wisdom and clarity of such good examples, I trust we will make our way through the rest of this adventure together, ready for what awaits us next.
Be wise, reach out, and stay true!
In a world without end,
May it be so