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A Personal Lesson from a Shipwreck Survivor by Mark Hatmaker


First, let’s set the stage. The following quote is an extract from Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex by First-Mate Owen Chase. In 1820 Chase was aboard the ill-fated ship that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale (the basis for the fictional account Moby-Dick by Melville.) The survivors spent 95 days at sea in harrowing conditions and ultimately cannibalism was relied upon to survive.

I offer the below extract and the commentary to follow for a very specific purpose.

“I found it on this occasion true, that misery does indeed love company; unaided, and unencouraged by each other, there were with us many whose weak minds, I am confident, would have sunk under the dismal retrospections of the past catastrophe, and who did not possess either sense or firmness enough to contemplate our approaching destiny, without the cheering of some more determined countenance than their own.”

First, note there is no bitterness or burden detected in that honest observation by Mr. Chase. Just a stark relation of fact-some people rely upon others to get them through the very same circumstances all are currently facing.

Those among us who have this “determined countenance” are the heroes of the world, they have the grit and determination to do what must be done, when it must be done, and often they must do so with the, and let’s call a spade a spade here, they must do it with the additional burden of taking up fellow victims’ slack.

They must do their job, pull their weight, and perhaps that of others all the while playing a bit of cheerleader for those less adapted/willing/prepared to step up.

Lest anyone think I am being too harsh here, keep in mind Mr. Chase and everyone else are all in the same boat-literally. At this point in time all are equals in adversity but there is some tangible difference indeed.

Now, it just may be that possession of a “determined countenance” is an inborn quality that we may simply have or have not in varying degrees, but I do not think this is the case.

Training and acclimatization seem to shape the human being in so many fields of endeavor I fail to see how we cannot expect that we can grow and expand our own capacities for a “determined countenance.”

Our bodies respond to exercise, our minds respond to education, our sprits respond to edification-perhaps our resolve, our survival prospects can and do also respond to training.

It is important to note that I am not referring to survival adeptness in regard to survival knowledge in the “prepper” sense. While such knowledge can be a plus, we have enough accounts of those with an excess of such knowledge folding when IT hits the fan to assume that simple “tactical smarts” is the key. We also have exceedingly numerous accounts of men, women, and children with little to zero hands-on survival training who somehow do just that, survive and in retrospect thrive.

So, yes, survival know-how is a net-positive but it seems to not be the key. Any cursory view of reality shows such as Naked and Afraid highlights this fact that, while all participants have survival abilities to some degree, the can-do, cheerful, “let’s do this together” individuals do far better than the dour loners or complainers.

Once IT hits the fan, whether that IT be an avenging sperm whale, a catastrophic terrorist attack, a mild fender-bender, or the long-ish wait to be seated at the restaurant we stand in better stead if we are surrounded by proactive calm can-do people who know how to work as a team and take up slack. Nothing (NOTHING) is made easier by adding any additional burden onto an already stressful event-whether that burden be lack of effort, lack of spirit, lack of grit, or simply whining about a situation all are equally steeped in.

So, how do we know whether or not we are this weak link?

My guess is, take a look at your day to day behavior. Do you regularly lament traffic? Grouse about how someone said something in a tone you didn’t like? Do you expound ala the following “You know how I get when I’m hungry?”

More often than not it is the small things that reveal us. Our trivial behavior is often our character writ large under stress. Consider this, if we are persnickety and peevish when it gets a little humid outside, imagine how we would be on day 88 of ocean survival in an open boat without food.

With this Small Behavior = Large Behavior equation in mind, we can take steps to correct if correction is needed or desired. By regularly monitoring our words, our texts, our posts, all of our communication and weeding it of the small peevishness that afflicts us all. My complaint of traffic means absolutely nothing to another person on the face of the planet. All I’ve done is add trivial noise to another’s day. If the stakes were raised and we are in an open boat surviving on a diet of turtle’s blood and facing the prospect of consuming deceased boat-mates, my trivial noise that must be counter-acted by another in equally dire straits is a disservice to the nth degree. In these circumstances my trivia becomes a net drag on the prospects for the entire crew.

With this said, to all of us with a mindset for grit, determination, and survival, let us learn from First Mate Chase’s grueling lesson and begin training ourselves to have this oh, so valuable “determined countenance.”
[See this blog and the No Second Chance Book of Drills for more on personal grit and mindset skills.]

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