I was in a "tight spot" recently and recalled a lesson I learned from reading about Sir Earnest Shackleton and his 1914 Trans-Antarctic expedition. (Ok, I admit it. I'm a history nerd!)
The lesson was this: when you are in a "tight place" (stressed, pressured, depleted or oppressed) you should display MORE common courtesy and grace to others than you normally would. This is especially important when you're married and in a tight place and under stress.
That sounds like odd advice. Difficult to imagine doing. Usually, when we're stressed, our impulse and natural bent is to display LESS courtesy and grace. We are MORE impatient with others. MORE curt in our tone of voice. LESS willing to be understanding and forgiving. But Shackleton taught me to do just the opposite and it's advice that works in real life.
Earnest Shackleton and twenty seven men set sail from England in August 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. Their mission was to travel to the Antarctica and be the first to cross that continent. But despite great planning and preparation Shackleton, his men and their ship, the Endurance, became locked in the frozen waters of the Antarctic Ocean and held captive by the ice for 20 months. Ultimately the ice crushed and sank their ship and their story of survival on the frozen continent (not one man perished) is nothing short of miraculous.
Toward the end of their two year journey of survival in the icy Antarctic, Shackleton and two of his crew hiked the final grueling miles toward a whaling station that meant rescue for themselves and the men they had left behind at a safe camp. As these three men crossed frozen miles of unyielding terrain, deep crevices and high mountains, they were pushed to their limits both physically and mentally. You might think, after months of hardship, they would be short-tempered and mean spirited toward each other, lacking patience and consideration for one another in the harsh environment. Just the contrary. These three men were under unbelievable stress but still exhibited a remarkable display of courtesy and grace toward one another.
Frank Worsley, one of Shackleton’s companions on the last leg of the survival sojourn, wrote this in his diary:
“When men are as tired as we were, their nerves are on edge and it is necessary for each man to take pains not to irritate the others. On this march we treated each other with a good deal more consideration than we should have done in normal circumstances. Never is etiquette and good form observed more carefully than by experienced travelers when they find themselves in a tight place.”
Treating each other with more consideration? Taking pains not to irritate each other? Etiquette and good form in tight places? Worsley’s observations, which seemed so self evident to him, are largely missing from our modern world and from our own marriages.
Think of the behavior most of us display toward our spouses during hectic times—like the end of the month when money is running out, or when problems crop up with the kids.. Instead of more consideration when we are in such a tight place we often show less. Do we, like Shackleton’s men “take pains not to irritate each other”, or are we short on patience and insensitive to the feelings of our husband or wife? Is “etiquette and good form” shown toward the one you love or is common coutesy thrown out the door as a needless nicety?
Shackleton and the men of the Endurance survived, in part, because they were hardy souls who were competent and courageous. But a large part of their survival—both mental and physical, was because of the common courtesies displayed toward one another.
We may never be frozen on a ship in the Antarctic or have our backs to the wall in a dramatic expedition. But, on a regular basis, we find in “tight places”. It is then we must show courtesy and grace. When you find yourself in a tight place, remember the words of Frank Worsley. Take pains not to irritate each other. Treat your spouse with more—not less—respect than in normal circumstances. Observe etiquette and good form even though your marriage is stressed out. If you will do these things, you can survive your tight place even in the face of insurmountable odds.
By Jim Priest