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Perishable Thoughts–
Reacting To Adversity

Whether one is sold out by his stock broker because he was on margin, loses one’s house because he couldn’t make the interest rate reset or comes out on the wrong side of a produce speculation, one question worth pondering is how one ought to react to adversity.

Robert Falcon Scott, CVO, was a officer in the British Royal Navy and led two expeditions to Antarctica. The first, the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904, led to his being seen as a heroic explorer. He was named a Captain in the Navy and was invested by King Edward VII as a Commander in the Royal Victorian Order.

His second Antarctic expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913, was not to meet the same fate. The purpose of the expedition was to claim for Britain the glory of being the first nation to reach the South Pole. When they did get to the Pole, they found that a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them by five weeks.

Despairing as this news was, the worst was yet to come. It was an 800-mile trek over land back and they were not to make it. Of the final five people who were sent to the South Pole, one died on the way home, another, unable to travel more and fearful he was holding back the group and hoping his sacrifice might save the others, voluntarily left the tent and walked into the snow to die.

The last three men made a final camp and a fierce blizzard prevented any further progress. Out of supplies, riddled with frostbite, all three men would die, including Scott. Before he did he wrote a “Message To The Public,” which included this line:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us. We have no cause for complaint…”

By Robert Falcon Scott
Found in his diary after the entire party froze to death in Antarctica

The line begins the penultimate paragraph of the Message, which concludes this way:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. The rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

A search party discovered the bodies and the notes, and Scott was to become an iconic hero of the nation. Dozens of memorials still exist across the British Isles. A Memorial fund to help dependents raised the then-astonishing amount of £75,000 equivalent in 2008 to about $7 million.

It is only in recent years in line with a skeptical age that Scott has been attacked for his conduct and competence.

We wish we knew how we would react under such a situation. We think there is something immensely admirable about assuming risk and then being willing to suffer the consequences of things turning out badly.

It wasn’t very politic of Phil Gramm, the former Republican Senator from Texas and, at the time, an adviser to the McCain campaign on economics to declare that America had become a “nation of whiners.”

Yet as others have pointed out, his point was not without merit:

Yes, losing one’s job or home is traumatic, and having both taken away more so. But the average citizens facing $4-a-gallon gas and learning that their hacienda isn’t the money factory they thought it was haven’t exactly been thrown into the Dust Bowl. Some Europeans pay twice as much for gas and live in half the space, and no one is passing around the hat for them.

I spent last week replaying Ken Burns’ searing series on World War II. “The War” follows several American families ranging from working class to upper-middle class. None of them, not even the fancy folks in Mobile, Ala., lived as large as today’s typical McMansion family.

These people also had to endure the war’s horrific sacrifice, made more unbearable by the youth of the dead. Nearly 7,000 Americans perished on the tiny island of Iwo Jima alone, with several times that number injured, many grievously. It was a hideous battle in a long parade of gruesome campaigns. Over 400,000 Americans died in that war.

One of the documentary’s running themes was that of servicemen pining for their loved ones back home. And their homes were modest triple-deckers in Connecticut, farmhouses in Minnesota or bungalows in California.

When the war ended, Americans soon resumed their historic quest for bigger and better. But even then, the returning soldier’s idea of palatial living was a 750-square-foot house in Levittown, one-third the average size of a new home in 2006. The accommodations in America, by the way, were the envy of ruined Europe.

So the recent economic downturn hasn’t made Americans poor by any sane measurement. No one enjoys downward mobility, but let’s ask whether telling kids to share a bedroom or downsizing to a sedan represents anything worthy of the word “sacrifice.”

Middle-class Americans fell into this predicament because they started acting like people who are richer than they are. They had built extravagant lifestyles with borrowed money.

Put another way, many took risks and now they have turned out badly. Yet the risks were not so dramatic as those taken by Robert Falcon Scott and the members of his expedition. And the consequences of losing are not as great.

Perhaps in loss, there can even be gain. We recognize the loss of a home is no trivial matter but the character of a man is no triviality either. Perhaps in adversity, we will have an opportunity to teach our children what we are truly made of. That perseverance and honor matter in a way that material things cannot.

The quote can be viewed here: (Download this entire volume through Google Books)

Scott’s Last Expedition …: Vol. I. Being the Journals of Captain R. F. Scott, R. N., C. V. O. Vol II. Being the Reports of the Journeys and the Scientific Work Undertaken by Dr. E. A. Wilson and the Surviving Members of the Expedition, Arranged by Leonard Huxley; with a Preface by Sir Clements …

By Robert Falcon Scott, Leonard Huxley
Published by Dodd, Mead and company, 1913
Item notes: v.1
Original from Harvard University
443 Pages, Pg. 417

The quote can be purchased here

Journals: Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics)Journals: Scott’s Last Expedition
By Robert Falcon Scott, Max Jones
Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition
(September 1, 2008)
592 Pages

There was also a 1948 film called “Scott of the Antarctic,” which chronicled the tragedy of the Terra Nova Expedition. You can purchase the DVD Scott of the Antarctichere.


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