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Four traits you need to ride out the pandemic, Shackleton style

In order of importance: optimism, then patience, next idealism and lastly courage

A toast to ‘sweethearts and wives’ on board the Endurance, during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-17, led by Ernest Shackleton. Photograph: Frank Hurley/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty

As the pandemic drags on, a lot of people have been looking to history for insights. Much focus has been on the parallels between coronavirus and past pandemics. Historians such as Ida Milne have highlighted the significance of the influenza pandemic of 1918, while Carl Kurlander has drawn attention to polio in the 1940s and 1950s.

There are lots of things to learn from these comparisons, especially about the lasting social and cultural ripples of epidemic disease. But for ideas about how to cope daily with the situation that we find ourselves in, I have looked instead to the exploits of Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic.

Through a series of podcasts produced in collaboration with the Athy Shackleton Committee and particularly with Kevin Kenny, I have been wondering: “What would Shackleton do?”

I did not become interested in history because of an interest in great men. I am suspicious of heroes. And Shackleton is a complex figure beyond the tales of adventure for which he earned his fame during the height of polar exploration. Yet over the past few weeks I have grown to admire him and what he means to people. He does provide examples of the psychological traits and daily practices that we all need right now.

The four qualities reflect his interest in science and discovery balanced with ideals of masculinity (the piece was written for boys)

In 1914 Shackleton wrote about the qualities that he believed every person needed to succeed in life and he put them in a very particular order. First optimism, then patience, next idealism and last of all courage. Perhaps if he had made this list in the midst of the first World War he might have arranged them differently.

They reflect his interest in science and discovery balanced with ideals of masculinity (the piece was written for boys). Wrenched out of context they still have a lot to offer and, as the podcast series has shown with the input of Shackleton aficionados, it’s easy to find examples of them in his adventures.

Remarkable survival

As Kevin Kenny described for me, Shackleton exemplified optimism and encouraged it in others. How else can one explain the remarkable survival of the entire crew of the Endurance despite the hardships of living on an ice floe, journeying through difficult seas in tiny lifeboats and camping on a rock barely worthy of the name “island” while praying for the success of an improbable rescue mission? We need to apply the same stubborn belief in a better future ahead of us. Think like Frank Hurley with his camera: record the now so we can remind people about it once it has passed. It’s hard to believe but the 1918 flu was referred to as the “forgotten pandemic”.

Shackleton read and wrote poetry. He believed his endeavours advanced human knowledge and the search for meaning in life

Mix into your optimism a generous dose of patience. Even after the Endurance sank, the crew set routines and made things to look forward to such as singalongs and a chance to eat next to the stove. We can do the same as we sit waiting on our metaphorical ice floe, as Seamus Taaffe told me. Patience is a job of work and not a natural talent.

As Laura Leonard recalled, Shackleton read and wrote poetry. He believed his endeavours advanced human knowledge and the search for meaning in life. He was idealistic in ways that we can imitate. We can also try to maintain a connection to whatever we see as a greater good or a larger purpose. Healthcare workers and scientists are providing us with inspiring examples of this all the time, as they continue treating difficult cases and working towards an elusive vaccine.

Ordinary courage

We also need courage of the ordinary kind, not the kind associated with derring-do. The courage to make decisions, to listen to different views and to act in difficult circumstances. Jim McAdam told me about Shackleton’s decision to turn back during the 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition, less than 100 miles from his goal. He swallowed his disappointment and returned. He preferred to be, as he put it, a live donkey rather than a dead lion.

The final episode of the podcast looks at kindness, a quality not on Shackleton’s list but one he demonstrated from sharing his rations to giving up a warm sleeping bag to accepting a stow away. We don’t need to be saintly; Shackleton’s extramarital affairs certainly suggest he wasn’t. As Jackie Blackwell told me, we can all show more kindness to one another by saying thank you early and often.

There are more difficult times ahead. As the Shackleton family motto tells us, “By Endurance We Conquer.”

Dr Juliana Adelman lectures in history at Dublin City University