“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
As a child, the explorer Ernest Shackleton was starstruck when he visited the docks, as he saw ships setting off for faraway lands. Day by day, his ambitions became more vivid as he devoured all the adventure fiction story books he could get his hands on.
One could say that Shackleton did live up to be an illustrious explorer, and somewhat of a hero figure, very much like the ones in books that he had read as a child. Though he did not achieve his goals in any of his expeditions, the world was shaken by stories of his leadership in intense life-or-death situations — most notably, his adventures on the ship The Endurance.
He had figured at an early age that his life was to be one of adventure. But the problem was that it had little else.
When he was gone for years at a time on his expeditions, he would miss home, but not domestic life. He didn’t know how to be around his wife and kids, whom he barely had a relationship with. He didn’t know how to be still.
Whenever he was home, it didn’t take long for inner emptiness to set in. He felt purposeless, as though he had nothing much to live for, and as though his best days were behind him.
And so he resorted to drinking and smoking heavily, just crossing his fingers for another adventure to come.
Ranulph Fiennes, who is a former explorer himself, wrote in his biography of Shackleton about a similar malaise that he had personally experienced before:
“The famed explorer Robert Peary once said, ‘The lure of the ice, it is a strange and powerful thing.’ I couldn’t agree more. No matter all the discomfort and failure you might have endured, the urge to return is mesmeric. I’ve often described it as having the same pull as the one a smoker feels when trying to shun thoughts of tobacco. The memories of gangrene, crotch rot and frostbite (I lost the end of five fingers) are eclipsed by the rose-tinted spectacles through which the prospect of a grand adventure is viewed. As another American once said, ‘Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.'”
For Shackleton, he could never silence the voice in his head that urged him to sail away again. Every expedition was to be his “last one”, as he would tell his wife.
This cycle would repeat itself until the very end of his life, even as his health was failing, even when his old mates refused to join his “final adventure” as they were more than happy to stay at home with their families.
He became an embodiment of Ulysses, the titular character of one of his favorite poems by Alfred Tennyson. He was the hero who came home only hungering for another adventure, determined to spend his last days “sailing beyond the sunset and all the western stars until I die.”
Yet, during Shackleton’s last expedition to the Arctic, his health was clearly getting the best of him. He wasn’t his normal stoic self — he seemed listless, he complained about every little thing. He would wake up with back pains, and he promised his crew that he would rest well. The next time they checked on him, they could no longer wake him up, no matter how much they tried.
Surely, a huge part of life is going after our goals and following our calling. But it’s worth remembering that being a huge part of it doesn’t mean that it’s everything.
As we can learn from Ernest Shackleton’s story, it would be tragic if our work is the only substantial piece of our identity that we feel one with. Still, it’s not uncommon for many of us to feel miserable or empty when we’re forced to leave the “fantasy realm” of our work and face the mundane realities of our everyday life.
We might even idealize the notion of the tortured artist, believing that living a well-balanced, healthy and happy life somehow isn’t conducive for creating great work.
No matter how much we might find fulfillment in our work, no matter how much it invigorates us — our work isn’t a distraction from the other equally important things in our life.
Our work isn’t worth putting ourselves in danger, sacrificing our relationships or losing sleep for. Contrary to what we’ve been conditioned to believe — it’s only when all parts of our life, namely our wellbeing, our relationships with others and with ourselves are in harmony, are we able to create our best work.
If you could take away just one thing from this article, remember that your work isn’t your life. It’s only a part of it.