In the world of online book ordering (much like online dating), I feel like while proximity to the locally unattainable is effected, something is lost from the romance of the search. I tend to look for the book I need online and buy it based on reviews from strangers. There are no pages to peer into, no scent indicating the history of that particular text, no cover to finger, and few surprise encounters.
Used book stores have all the romance, especially the ones with nooks and crannies. You think you are looking at cottage gardening in the South, but a quarter turn later you are paging through a gem detailing the colorful and quirky personalities of the authors of the Oxford English Dictionary.
I found one of those unexpected flirtations last week with The Impossible Rescue, by Martin W. Sandler. He weaves the tale of a handful of determined but untrained men sent 1,700 by foot to rescue nearly 300 stranded whalers in the northernmost coasts of Alaska. We have such limited concepts of what is humanly possible. Every single day of their year long adventure would seem an impossibility to most 1st world travelers. It would be so easy in their situation to despair or to feel that any efforts towards creative solutions would be futile in the face of broken sleds, hurting men and snow dogs, inadequate clothing, or shelter from unimaginable snowstorms and crashing ice floes capable of splintering boats in seconds.
The commander of the expedition, David Jarvis, was a true hero. He inspired his men to great personal sacrifice with words like these:
If you are subjected to miserable discomforts, or even if you suffer, it must be regarded as all right and simply a part of the life, and like sailors, you must never dwell too much on the dangers or suffering, lest others question your courage.
Notice, he makes a distinction between discomforts and true sufferings. How easy is it in our soft modern world to convolute the two? Jarvis also sympathetically warns of the dangers inherent in dwelling on our misfortunes. Resentment turns small annoyances into chasms and minor obstacles into mountain ranges.
I wish more heroes that are placed before us to emulate had his attitude. He was not a hero for a moment or an hour or even a week. He was faithful for a year to a cause with uncertain outcomes, little chance of reward, life-threatening hardship, and no constant companion by his side. In fact, his wife was left behind in New England mere weeks before giving birth to their first child. While Sandler’s narrative does not delve into the faith of the men he studies, Jarvis’ words recall a similar exhortation by a popular Catholic writer, Jacques Philippe, in his book Interior Freedom:
The highest and most fruitful form of human freedom is found in accepting, even more than in dominating. We show the greatness of our freedom when we transform reality, but still more when we accept it trustingly as it is given to us day after day.
It is natural and easy to go along with pleasant situations that arise without our choosing them. It becomes a problem, obviously, when things are unpleasant, go against us, or make us suffer. But it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free!
To achieve true interior freedom we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation that life imposes on us, and so on. We find it difficult to do this, because we feel a natural revulsion for situations we cannot control. But the fact is that the situations that really make us grow are precisely those we do not control.
As I begin a new year, I honestly have little confidence in my ability to check off concrete goals for order, health, hobbies, or education. There are quite a few unpredictable variables in my life running around on two legs with markers in hand and a wild spark of creative impulse glinting in their eyes. But I do think that, with God’s grace, I can make headway against the emotions that paralyze me and overwhelm my efforts at sanctity. My snowstorms may be made of shredded foam from a torn package, my mountains may be patient sessions beside an emergent reader, and my attempts to melt stubborn ice may be ministrations to small wounded hearts rather than frostbitten feet. However, God has offered me freedom and grace to be heroic in my own home, and the salvation we seek will last for eternity.