Waiting for a flight to Beirut on Sunday, I came a cross a Saturday column by David Brooks of the NY Times entitled “The Life Report”. He talked about a discovery he made recently, coming across a collection of short autobiographies that the Yale class of 1942 wrote for their 50th reunion. Some are inspiring, and some are ones you want to avoid. The most common lament is that people worked all of their lives for the same company and now realized how boring they must be. Others regretted risks that were not taken. Most played it safe.
Ironically, I was just into The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. It’s the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s darkest journey. If there ever was a risk taker, if ever anyone lived a life that did not play it safe, it was Roosevelt. He had this propensity to lose himself in physical hardship and danger. Frail and sickly as a child, this future President overcame it by forcing himself into a regimen of harsh physical exercise, something he did all of his life. His idea of a vacation was not Camp David; rather, he would occasionally head for the badlands to fight with bears, often alone.
But when his political career ended, he was bored and ripe for an adventure. He was ready to change professions, become a naturalist and an explorer. He was invited to venture into the dense jungle of the Amazon. But Roosevelt went far deeper. He shifted from the original plan, and to the horror of his sponsors, he decided to go where no one had ever gone in the Amazon. He decided to explore the River of Doubt. It had never been mapped. No one knew its length or direction, or anything about the perils that went with it. Roosevelt saw it as his last chance to be a boy, but when he emerged months later, he had aged way beyond his 54 years. After his journey on this 1000 mile river through the dense Brazilian rainforest, He was an old man who never fully recovered.
It’s understandable. Just to get to the river required a harrowing journey of two months over vast and varied terrain. His group lost 98 mules alone on the way. And then they came to the river and began their descent, there was no turning back. Here is some of what he and the others faced: hordes of gnats, sand flies, horseflies and bees and malaria carrying mosquitoes. Staying afloat on their crude and heavy canoes was a must. The river was full of alligators, 500 pound anacondas, razor tooth piranhas, poisonous frogs, bull sharks, and candiru—tiny fish known for wiggling their way into the urethra, creating the most unimaginable pain. On land, there were jaguars and wild pigs and flying monkeys, and the most lethal snakes in the world, whose bite meant the worst suffering and death within minutes. There always lurked hostile Indians, violent and unpredictable, who celebrated their victory by eating their human prey. Worst of all was the jungle that was anything but a sanctuary, where everything fought for survival, and anything and anyone that was weak or infirmed was ruthlessly dealt with. Daily deluges of rain drenched them, and then there were the terrifying sounds at night, spine chilling noises that kept a man awake in mortal fear.
Roosevelt chose to enter this world for the sheer experience of discovery. But once he entered, disease, hunger, and exhaustion stalked him at every turn, down every falls, through every rapid, and on every hike. By the time he came out, he and those in his party appeared almost inhuman. Gaunt, hollow cheeked, clothes tattered, skin bruised and baked and bitten, Roosevelt lost one fourth of his weight.
Sadly, there is hardly a mention of God in the story. I am always amazed at this. How futile and meaningless it all is when it is largely about self. The book left me both amazed, saddened, and empty. Perhaps, many of the Yale stories are the same. I’m challenged by all of this to live meaningfully, to live adventurously, though I have no desire to do anything much more daring than kayaking the Pend Oreille. Hopefully my essay will ring with passion and conviction, but most of all, be about His story in me.