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Lessons from the Edge

Have you ever been cold? I mean really, really cold? Try to recall the coldest, most miserable time in your entire life. It might have been on a camping trip when you got caught in a hard rain and had to spend the night in a wet sleeping bag. It might have been waiting for a tow truck in the winter with a dead battery.

Now hold that feeling and imagine that someone said to you:
"You're going to live this way for the next 634 days. You'll be out of touch with the rest of the world; your family will have no idea whether you are dead or alive; and you will be hungry to the point of starvation.1

That is what happened to Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Tran-Antarctic expedition that began in 1914. In Leading at the Edge: Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition Dennis Perkins tells us what it is like to survive a grueling journey on the edge of the world under those circumstances through ten points that are important concepts in leadership.

Today I'm going to speak about those ten points because they are important to all of us as a community. We are facing challenges neither as trying nor as hazardous as the one that Shackleton's expedition face almost a century ago. In fact, we have a wealth of resources and ability to make it through our own trials. The reality is that we, as a religious community, and as spiritual individuals need to remember our strengths, to celebrate them and to turn with reverence to the ideals that inspire us and the people here who would stand beside us in the cold.

In 1914 Ernest Shackleton and his team of twenty-five explorers set out for the first overland crossing of the Antarctic continent. He took with him men of a wide range of ages, professional skills and temperaments. They would face disaster after disaster together and each and every one of them returned to England. They all survived a mission that should have killed them.

Before they even reached Antactica though their ship became trapped in ice for ten months and is crushed. The men stay on a humongous ice floe for two months then decide that they must drag their remaining boats across the ice to open water. They endure a mutiny by the carpenter, McNeish, who at fifty-eight is the oldest member of the team. By April 1916 they decided to head out in the three lifeboats and, taking the only option that they can imagine, they take to the open sea in search of land and find it on Elephant Island. For the first time in 497 days they are on dry land. There they realize that they are marooned. Nobody on earth can rescue them and their food supply, though better, is still inadequate. They will die there if they do not take action. Shackleton instructs the carpenter to make one of the lifeboats sea-worthy for a long voyage. After considerable alterations McNeish prepares a life-boat and Shackleton and five other men set out on an eight hundred mile journey over open sea to South Georgia which has a whaling outpost. On May 16, 1916 Shackleton and his five men arrive at South Georgia but they have to cross the island to find the outpost, meaning that they will be crossing glaciers and climbing mountains. It takes them another three days and nights to make that harrowing journey to the outpost and shortly thereafter Shackleton's men on Elephant Island are rescued.

The first strategic point that enabled the crew to survive was never losing sight of the ultimate goal, focus energy on short-term objectives. During the time that Shackleton's crew were trapped on the ship he repeatedly had them plan for their expedition even though it seemed unlikely that they would make it to land. At one point, he even gave them the task of planning a future expedition to the North Pole to distract them and keep their minds active. Sometimes when we are so taken with just the normal activities of maintaining things as they are we lose sight of the larger vision. We need to take small steps in our daily activity to remember the larger vision that sustains us.

The second point is that each of us sometime needs to personal example, with visible, memorable symbols and behaviors. When they were deciding what to take with them from the ship, Shackleton addressed the men and told them that no item was of value unless it weighed in favor of their ultimate survival. They needed to let go of everything that might weigh them down. After this speech he took out a gold cigarette case and several gold coins and threw them into the snow at his feet. Valuable—but of no value under their circumstances.

This is important for us. Sometimes to make it through the next stage of our existence to survive and to thrive, we have to let go of something we previous considered valuable. Sometimes this is truly painful but necessary. As a community sometimes we have to let go of something to embrace a new identity.

The third strategy is to instill optimism and self-confidence, but stay grounded in reality. This one is pretty simple. It means that we as a community and as individuals need to believe that we live in a world of possibility. We need to believe that we can accomplish our goals as individuals and as a community because we can. We need to be grounded in reality to sustain this belief but nothing good is too far beyond us.

The fourth strategy is taking care of oneself and letting go of guilt. Shackleton constantly made sure that people were taken care of. He learned though not to sacrifice overly much his own well-being because he learned that he had to be at his best to help others. Do what you need to do to take care of your physical, psychological and spiritual health. Strangely, in our society we often work on empty. We take on too much and we think that because we Unitarian Universalists are such responsible folks that we should do things even when it is damaging ourselves. Sometimes we just need to talk to friends or take a moment to regain our spiritual center.

The fifth strategy is that we are a team. This might be the most important lesson for us in this congregation. We often take on the weight of things as individuals around here. A previous minister warned us that we tended to have "shooting stars," individuals who did things without pulling in the community. I once served a congregation like that. Let me tell you what happened.

One day in the late summer a member of the congregation was digging up her tulip beds. She remember how poorly the tulips from last spring had bloomed. Realizing she had more than enough bulbs for next year, she took some of the bulbs to the flowerbed in the church parking lot digging up the older bulb there that remained from the previous year. The next week two congregants were planting bulbs at a town park. Realizing that they had more than enough bulbs and with permission from the township, they took the bulbs from the town park, dug up the ones at the church parking lot flowerbed planted by the woman the week before and planted the ones from the township. Later that week, a member of the congregation realized that his garden had more than enough tulip bulbs so he took them to the flowerbed at the church parking lot and dug up the ones the couple planting for the township had planted earlier. This story unraveled in a board meeting.

It could happen here. Mark Piechota told a story. A boy and his father are walking through the woods. The boy looks down at a rock and says, "Daddy I am so strong. I can lift this rock." And he does so.

Further down the trail, the boy and his father walk. The boy finds a bigger rock. He says, "Daddy I am so strong. I can lift this rock." And with much more effort the boy lifts the rock.

They travel down the path. The boy finds an even bigger rock. He says, "Daddy I am so strong. I can lift this rock." He tries and he tries but the rock doesn't budge much.

Eventually, the boy looks down and says, "I guess that I'm not strong enough."

"You are," his father replies, "You just didn't use all your strength."

"Yes, I did," the boy replies.

"No, you didn't use all your strength," the father replies. "You didn't ask me."

Sometimes when we are tired and feel weak it is because we as individuals and as a community have not used all our strength. We have not asked each other for help. We have not turned to another and said, "I need you." Perhaps we are unwilling to recognize our own vulnerability, believing in the power of our own individuality. Whatever the cause, we are stronger when we trust each other and act as a team.

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The sixth strategy of Shackleton's leadership was to insist on courtesy and mutual respect. This something that is always important to us. If you watched the MTV series, "The Real World," you might understand this a little better. In that reality series a group of young people are thrown together to live in a house for an extended period of time. It always begins well and everyone is polite and courteous. Then, the strains of living together and living with each other's "problems" become apparent and people become rude and antagonistic.

In some ways, this happens in every group of people. Yet, we must insist on treating others as we would be treated. Keeping this attitude of respect present was vitally important for Shackleton's expedition to survive.

The seventh strategic point is that one deal with anger in small doses, engage dissidents and avoid needless power struggles. During Shackleton's expedition emotions flaired every day. Keep the arguments small. Every day someone would forget to close the tent flap to the cold, step on another, snow knocked into shoes. Team members addressed their concerns directly. Sometimes they had cross words. Shackleton modeled the right response though by letting off steam now and then. It is completely normal to live in conflict. Everyone does. It is part of human community and it does not need to be crippling.

Shackleton understood this and understood the need to pick his battles. When McNeish, the carpenter, mutinied and refused to go further, Shackleton listened quietly. Afterward, Shackleton turned his back and walked away. He did not want to waste his energy on a pointless, unreasonable argument. After weighing his options, McNeish again resumed his work at the sled. The mutiny was averted.

The eighth strategic point is simple—lighten up! Find something to celebrate and something to laugh about. Shackleton constantly sought a reason for his men, locked in a struggle to survive to find something to celebrate. When the ship was sinking in the ice and the men were grabbing at everything, Shackleton went back into the ship to retrieve Hussey's zither banjo. Remember, he had just told the men to carry only what was necessary to survival. He presented the banjo back to Hussey, who recalled the incident as follows:

It's rather heavy," I said dubiously. "Do you think we ought to take it?
"Yes, certainly," was Shackleton's prompt answer. "It's vital mental medicine, and we shall need it."2

Our congregation has much to celebrate and we should remember that. On Valentine's Day next month our congregation will be one hundred ninety years old. We led the desegregation of this neighborhood. We have long been a beacon for equality and racial diversity in our area and in our larger religious movement. We need to celebrate that.

We also need to retain the saving grace of a sense of humor. As the ship finally succumbed to the ice Shackleton ordered all to abandon the ship. As they were going over he turned to one of his companions and said:

"We've got it in the neck all right this time, haven't we?"
"Well, I don't think so, (his friend replied),
"You wouldn't have anything to write a book about if it hadn't been for this."
"By Jove, I'm not so sure you aren't right, Shackleton remarked, at which we both had a good laugh."

Disaster happened and they still sustained their sense of humor. Couldn't we do that when far less disastrous things happen?

Strategy nine is also simple: be willing to take the Big Risk. I know that you might feel that the congregation has risked too much and loss too much in recent years but sometimes the only way to move forward is to risk a good deal. Shackleton did this when he and five men set out in a modified rowboat to traverse eight hundred miles of open sea to find the island of South Georgia.

This was the Big Risk but it was necessary. Never take the unnecessary chances. Never be incautious unless the alternative is death, however that is interpreted. If though, the future entails taking the Big Risk, take it.

Finally, the last strategic point is this, "never give up, there's always another move." Even at the bleakest moments we need to remember that we can always do something. Shackleton hit this point when he and two comrades traversed the island of South Georgia. They had to climb mountains to get to the other side of the island. So one night they wound up on the top of a mountain on a glacier. Fog closed off the possibility of going down one side. Darkness cloaked the other direction. It was a steep descent, but how steep? If they waited for moonlight they would freeze to death on the top of the mountain. They needed a creative solution, a way out. Shackleton sat and thought for a moment and then said,

I've got an idea. We must go on, no matter what is below. To try to do it this way is hopeless. We can't cut steps down thousands of feet. . . It's a devil of a chance but we've got to take it. We'll slide.3

The prospect of sliding down a mountain glacier was daunting. Giant rocks and boulders could kill on impact. Glaciers often have huge crevasses, hundreds of feet deep. Worsley though wrote, "if we were killed, at least we had done everything in our power to bring help to our shipmates." So they slid. Here's how Worsley describes it:

We each coiled our share of the rope until it made a pad on which we could sit to make our glissade from the mountaintop. We hurried as much as possible, being anxious to get through the ordeal. Shackleton sat on the large step he had carved into the glacier, and I sat behind him, straddled my legs around him and clasped him round the neck. Crean, our mate, did the same with me, so that we were locked together as one man. Then Shackleton kicked off.

We seemed to shoot into space. For a moment my hair fairly stood on end. Then quite suddenly I felt a glow, and I knew that I was grinning. I was actually enjoying it. It was most exhilarating. We were shooting down the side of an almost precipitous mountain at nearly a mile a minute. I yelled with excitement, and found that Shackleton and Crean were yelling too. . . To hell with rocks!4

This was the other plan, the one that entailed another Big Risk. It's the one that must be taken when necessary. They knew that it had to be done though. Their mates were relying on them and they could not give up. When they reached the bottom of the slope, they all shook hands and Shackleton said, "It's not good to do that kind of thing too often."

In my own life, I feel that I've taken the Big Risk only twice and neither Big Risk was of that nature. The first was to enter the Unitarian Universalist ministry. The other was to marry my wife. Neither was necessary, I suppose, but each entailed the possibility of new life and deep love. Occasionally we, individually and collectively, need to be willing to take the Big Risk because it is necessary for our survival, it offers the only possibility of living and thriving.

Today I have shared with you that we need to keep in mind our ultimate goal, set personal examples of our faith, be optimistic and realistic, take care of ourselves, act as a team using our strength, insist on courtesy and mutual respect, deal with our anger and avoid petty disputes, celebrate, be willing to take the Big Risk, and never give up. I hope that this speaks to your faith.

I share this with you because I believe that you are a community of leaders who do not always act as leaders in church. This congregation is composed of people who bring tremendous gifts. It is, and always has been, a place of glorious possibility. I hope that you have been given, through these words, a few ways to move forward together. I hope that we are at the edge of a new beginning.


1 Perkins, Dennis N.T., Leading at the Edge (AMACOM Books, 2000), P. 2.
2 Ibid.  P. 118.
3 Ibid. P. 146.
4 Ibid Pp. 146-147.

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