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Lessons From The South Pole

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Roald Amundsen, C/O Wikimedia Commons

A brief synopsis of the stories of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott. Both men attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s team succeeded and returned to their homeland safely. Scott’s team made it to the Pole more than a month after Amundsen’s, and the whole team perished on the way back. From the book Great by Choice by Jim Collins:

Are You Amundsen or Scott?
While in his late twenties, Roald Amundsen traveled from Norway to Spain for a two-month sailing trip to earn a master’s certificate. It was 1899. He a nearly two-thousand-mile journey ahead of him. And how did Amundsen make the journey? By carriage? By horse? By ship? By rail? He bicycled.
Amundsen then experimented with eating raw dolphin meat to determine its usefulness as an energy supply. After all, he reasoned, someday he might be shipwrecked, finding himself surrounded by dolphins, so he might as well know if he could eat one. It was all part of Amundsen’s years of building a foundation for his quest, training his body and learning as much as possible from practical experience about what actually worked. Amundsen even made a pilgrimage to apprentice with Eskimos. What better way to learn what worked in polar conditions than to spend time with a people who have hundreds of years of accumulated experience in ice and cold and snow and wind?
Amundsen’s philosophy: You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. You don’t wait until you’re shipwrecked to determine if you can eat raw dolphin. You don’t wait until you’re on the Antarctic journey to become a superb skier and dog handler. You prepare with intensity, all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength. And equally, you prepare so that when conditions turn in your favor, you can strike hard.
Robert Falcon Scott presents quite a contrast to Amundsen. In the years leading up to the race for the South Pole, he could have trained like a maniac on cross-country skis and taken a thousand-mile bike ride. He did not. He could have gone to live with Eskimos. He did not. He could have practiced more with dogs, making himself comfortable with choosing dogs over ponies. Ponies, unlike dogs, sweat on their hides so they become encased in ice sheets when tethered, posthole and struggle in snow, and don’t generally eat meat. (Amundsen planned to kill some of the weaker dogs along the way to fuel the stronger dogs) Scott chose ponies. Scott also bet on ‘motor sledges’ that hadn’t been fully tested in the most extreme South Pole conditions. As it turned out, the motor-sledge engines cracked within the first few days, the ponies failed early, and his team slogged through most of the journey by ‘manhauling,’ harnessing themselves to sleds, trudging across the snow, pulling the sleds behind them.
Unlike Scott, Amundsen systematically built enormous buffers for unforeseen events... A single detail aptly highlights the difference in their approaches: Scott brought one thermometer for a key altitude-measurement device, and he exploded in ‘an outburst of wrath and consequence’ when it broke; Amundsen brought *four* such thermometers to cover for accidents. Amundsen didn’t know precisely what lay ahead. He didn’t know the exact terrain, the altitude of the mountain passes, or all the barriers he might encounter. He and his team might get pounded by a series of unfortunate events. Yet he designed the entire journey to systematically reduce the role of big forces and chance events by vigorously embracing the possibility of those very same big forces and chance events. He presumed bad events might strike his team somewhere along the journey and he prepared for them, even developing contingency plans so that the team could go on should something unfortunate happen to him along the way. Scott left himself unprepared and complained in his journal about his bad luck. ‘Our luck in weather is preposterous,’ penned Scott in his journal, and wrote in another entry, ‘It is more than our share of ill-fortune...How great may be the element of luck!’

To cut to the chase, Amundsen’s team reached the South Pole on December 15, 1911, while Scott and his team were 360 miles behind. Scott reached the Pole a month later. Amundsen and his team safely reached home base January 25, while Scott’s team perished on the return journey. Both teams started their journeys within a few days of each other, both had a round trip of approximately 1400 miles, and both faced similar environmental conditions (for example, both teams had the exact same ratio of good weather days to bad weather days--56%). Multiple factors explain their divergent outcomes….one of the main factors is how they approached preparation.

The contrast in their stories can serve as a bit of an allegory/fable for Christian parents charged with discipling their kids for Christ in a topsy-turvy 21st century. Don’t get me wrong. There are some bad ways to apply the lessons from their stories. It is easy, driven by fear of the world’s influence on our children, to go to extremes, to cram every moment of the day with esoteric and high falutin’ theology, to make discipleship all about simply having the correct beliefs and neglecting the relational aspect of our faith, to neglect the importance of being relational and approachable in your parenting. It’s easy to miss all that and more. Discipleship ain’t an SAT prep course. Freaking out and making discipleship into drill and kill is a giant fail. There’s a decent chance that Dad-the-task-master-theology-professor will backfire.

It is also easy to miss the fact that you can do everything “right” as a parent (nobody does, but just go with me, here), and your children still may walk away. There are no guarantees. Parenting and discipleship is not an algorithm where you get a predictable output from a set input. In a large respect, you are not in control. Kids, much like grown adults, are human beings with agency, who sometimes use that agency to walk away from what their parents have taught them, despite wise and faithful efforts of the parents.

Still, I submit that there are some lessons for Christian parents today. Here’s the main one: preparation matters. Yes, there are a thousand ways to overdo it. Yes, there are no guarantees. No, that doesn’t mean that we need not be more intentional, serious, and consistent in our discipleship efforts in the home. Notice how Collins succinctly summarizes Amundsen’s philosophy: “You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and prepare, with intensity.” May our discipleship philosophy be much the same. The world absolutely bombards our kids. You might not be interested in the culture wars, but I assure you, the culture wars are very interested in you…that goes times a hundred for your kids. You have your kids under your roof for a very short period of time. Make the best use of that time you can and intentionally prepare your kids for the challenges that await, for the challenges that they *will* face. They already *are* facing countless challenges, most without your knowledge. Education is not the job of some other institution. It is not for “the experts.” it’s YOUR job. Whether you’ve made the decision to public school, private school, or homeschool, you are still the primary educator and shaper of your kids.

Exactly how to do that is an ongoing conversation, one that The Daniel Collaborative and others are built to address, but one thing is for sure, it is naïve in the extreme to think Sunday church, youth group involvement, and prayer at mealtime will do the trick. Those things are good and necessary, but they are not adequate “preparation.” The typical middle-class Christian suburban-hustle lifestyle leaves our kids woefully unprepared, vulnerable to the elements.

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