Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

When Men Romanticize

I was already hooked on the writing of Hampton Sides (Ghost Soldiers), so I anticipated his newest book would be a great read. It did not disappoint. It has helped endure the long winter nights. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette is “harrowing reading”, holding you in its grip from beginning to end. His first book left me sweating; this one left me freezing.

Before Sides’ book, the only “arctic” interest I had was the story of Ernest Shackleton. There’s a lot of similarities between the two captains. Both Shackleton and George DeLong were arctic explorers living in a similar era (late 1800’s, early 1900’s). Both were overcome by arctic fever. Both were possessed by ambition and gifted as strong leaders. Shackleton was a Merchant Navy Officer; DeLong was a US Naval Officer. Shackleton went south to Antarctica; DeLong went north. It was as if the magnetic field of the North Pole pointed the compass of his life northward, and DeLong could not but go. 

Both men saw their ships crushed into watery graves by the merciless ice flows. Both faced the responsibility of leading their marooned men (men suffering everything from severe frostbite to snow blindness, syphilis, starvation, dysentery, and losing their minds) back to civilization and safety. Both demonstrated bold and courageous leadership during months of the most unimaginable suffering. Shackleton lived to tell the story of the Endurance.  Only DeLong’s journals (and a few of the crew) survived to tell his.

It is hard to understand what drives men to head for the most forbidden parts of earth. For DeLong, his disdain for the polar landscape gradually wore off. He became intrigued by the Arctic and its lonely grandeur and “dreadful majesty.” It was the purest of wildernesses, and DeLong began to fall in love with it. He became a “pagophile” (a creature that is happiest in the ice). It provided an escape from the “dreary duties” of ordinary life.

All of us tend to romanticize opportunities. DeLong got caught up in the dream. Like Christopher Columbus, he was convinced he was about to make an amazing discovery. If one could just penetrate and break through the artic crust, who knew what was on the other side? Perhaps a polar sea, warmed by the sun. There might be islands and unknown species of plants, fish and animals. Maybe there were monsters from the deep—prehistoric creatures that still wandered the vast ice fields.

Sadly, it was a fool’s errand.  There were no warm Pacific currents providing a highway north. There was no discovery that transcended Columbus’—just uninhabited land masses. You know you are in trouble when, after months and years of being stranded, the sighting of Siberia is the most exciting moment of your life.

Romanticize is the operative word here. We know what it means because we all tend to do it. To romanticize is to think about, or describe, something as better or more attractive or interesting than it really is. We glamorize people; we idealize new jobs. Peterson, in his Under the Unpredictable Plant, warns pastors against the tendency to commit “ecclesiastical pornography”—“Lusting after the next congregation.”   We imagine utopia and discover that in this brave new world, they too are sinners. To use Peterson’s language, “the fleas come with the dog.” Romantics exaggerate the benefits in order to justify the decision. We sentimentalize the past, forgetting the reasons we left in the first place. We look at possible challenges through rose-colored glasses. We put people on pedestals. These are all symptoms of “romanticitus”.

It is part of our nature to explore. It’s what compelled us to send men to the moon. It’s what draws us to move across the ocean (as our family did in 1993). But there is a thin line, where one traverses into folly. Proverbs describes it this way: “Wisdom is the focus of the perceptive, but a fool’s eyes roam to the ends of the earth” (17:24). One man lives in reality; the other is hopelessly lost in unreality. For DeLong, the words of Proverbs 14:12 seem to form a sad epitaph: “There is a way that seems right, but its end is the way of death.” The theory of the Open Polar Sea died with the Jeannette sinking. Still, I am drawn to men like DeLong, and wish for something of their courage and leadership and aspirations in my own life.

Leave a Reply