I’m wondering right now about what Ernest Shackleton might have been thinking in 1914 when his expedition to the South Pole became a disaster right in front of him. Fifteen years ago, I read “Endurance” the account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which he led. His mission was to lead his team to the South Pole and back, thereby becoming the first team in the world to achieve this feat. His ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice before they made land. Slowly, the boat was crushed by the ice. Once Shackleton and his men escaped the destruction of the ship, he had a new mission: keep all his men alive. 

I’m curious to know when he knew that his mission had changed. Obviously, he gave the abandon ship command knowing what that meant — I presume there’s quite a bit of training in the Navy about the danger this singular phrase connotes. He must have known before the day he uttered these words that he would have to make this declaration. I don’t have the book anymore, which cites his journal as a primary source, so I don’t remember if his thinking is revealed on this point. What must have been going through his mind? When did he know? 

My mind is in this space as we are amidst a lockdown in India and my school has moved to virtual learning. Like the rest of the world, this is a huge shift — recreating the experiences that occur in a school online is daunting. In a community of expats, I and others like me are wondering what comes next. We’re fine now, but this situation is so uncertain. What if the risks rise quickly and our options narrow just as fast? Will I know when it is time to leave what I am doing behind and focus on a different line of action all together? 

Shackleton knew that putting his team on the ice increased their challenges immediately, so he kept them on the boat as long as possible. He had to get the timing just right — stay on the boat just a moment too long and they might go down with it. He could neither leave the boat too early or stay on it too long. He got it just right, and then they suffered immensely as they fought to survive everything hurled at them. I really hope that’s not what lies ahead of us. 

I hope it is obvious when it is time for us to change course.

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