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Using History for Perspective | Lessons on Perseverance

By Chad Malone

In this time of social distancing, the quarantine and nonessential business closures, it’s easy to fall into a rut and get caught up waiting for something to change. It’s more helpful to remember that we are not the first to go through hard times…and we won’t be the last. As I’ve been reflecting about the current pandemic, I’m reminded of the Odyssey, a story set in the times of ancient Greece that describes the hero Odysseus venturing his way home after a ten year siege on the city of Troy, only to get lost at sea for another ten years. He is faced with numerous trials and tribulations, varying from a giant cyclops to the wrath of Poseidon himself. I’m also reminded of Ernest Shackleton, a historical figure who led the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition with a crew of 27 men. They found themselves lost on the Antarctic ice with limited supplies and food for a period of two years. Shackleton and his crew braved the frigid seas, gale force winds, disease and certain death without radio or advanced navigation tools. Today we are faced with an increasing number of COVID-19 infections, a death toll that is climbing, and with no definite end in sight.

During Odysseus’ epic journey, he was driven by the need to return home in time to save his land, his wife from being stolen and his son from being murdered by the suiters who were seeking to take his title and riches. Ernest Shackleton and his crew braved some of the cruelest conditions on the face of Earth, only to break off into two groups, one who which remained stranded, and the other continuing along a perilous passage to became the first to traverse the terrain of South Georgia Island.

What lessons can we learn from history’s stories of endurance and survival? Odysseus had a land and family to save, while Shackleton had his own life and that of his crew to save. In both stories Odysseus and Shackleton had a definite mission and purpose at stake and they did whatever it took to persevere. In our situation, there is no unbearable cold and no god of the sea trying to smite us, but our struggles are real nonetheless. The stresses of providing your kids with an education while working from home, furloughs and job losses, the simple monotony of day-to-day life without the routines which keep you sane…make for hard living. To survive we all have a part to play; we are slowing the transmission of the virus by means of social distancing (though I hate that phrase) and the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). But, what beyond that is our end goal? Is it enough to simply endure this difficult time, then pick up the pieces and hope things get back to the way they were before? To me this would be a demonstrable failure; this hardship—like the ones which came before—provide us with opportunities to grow.

“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.”
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Having a mission and purpose is essential to enduring difficult times, and it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as saving your land and family in a hand to hand battle to the death with swords and spears. Just think back to weeks ago, with so many people telling themselves that if only they had more time, then they would accomplish something profound. Well, now we do have time. Pick up an instrument, get into peak shape, finish that household project, learn something new…nothing is stopping you. Additionally, in this age of advanced technology, as we try to flatten the curve with social distancing (remember, I hate that term), nobody needs to be antisocial. Pick up the phone, get onto Zoom, use Facebook Messenger, and connect.

One type of stress that’s particular insidious during times like this is the worry of the unknown. Keep in mind that none of us are alone when dealing with this fear, but the best way to cope is to plan and take action on those things that we can control. Give yourself no time to think about what you don’t have control over. Record your mission, identify your purpose, reach out and utilize your community, and start achieving your goals. We are all in this together, so the success of one person is a success for us all. We’ll get through this and when we do we will all be stronger than ever.

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