Lessons in fear from the whaling ship Essex

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Marcus Aurelius
121 – 180 AD

On August 12, 1819, the whale ship Essex and its crew of 29 sailors set out from Nantucket, Massachusetts on what was intended to be a two and a half year journey to whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. Only two days after leaving port, the Essex encountered a storm that did considerable damage to the vessel. But the crew made makeshift repairs and continued on their voyage.

A little over a year later, they reached their destination but were having very little luck finding whales. On November 20, 1820, they spotted a group of whales and launched three chase boats to follow the pod. What happened next was part of the basis for the novel Moby Dick: a huge sperm whale, estimated to weigh 80 tons, rammed the Essex. Then the whale swam about 500 yards from the boat and turned, accelerating as it swam towards the vessel. It hit the boat at full speed, causing severe damage, and the boat quickly sank. The crew salvaged what they could and took refuge in the three chase boats.

So here’s a brief recap of the situation. The crew were in three small boats roughly 1,200 miles from the closest land (the Marquesas Islands). They were 2,000 miles from the coast of South America, but due to the prevailing winds and currents, the route there would be nearly twice that distance — almost 4,000 miles. The chase boats weren’t designed for long voyages, had no living accommodations and contained a very limited supply of food and water.

The day after the sinking, the survivors discussed their options. One was to head to the Marquesas, which offered the best chance of survival. But there were rumors that cannibals inhabited those islands. The other choice was to head in the opposite direction, for South America. That journey was almost three times as long, and the length of the trip would certainly decrease the odds of survival.

The crew were deathly afraid of cannibals, so they choose to head to South America.

Many crew members were lost on the journey. To survive, they actually had to resort to cannibalism, first eating those who died naturally and later drawing lots to see who would be sacrificed.

Eventually, a handful made it to South America. Had they chosen to head to the Marquesas, they would not have found any cannibals and it’s likely that all would have survived.

There’s a very valuable lesson we can draw from this sad story. In our everyday life, we tend to fear the worst possible outcome. And — like the sailors of the Essex — we often choose a course of action that results in disaster.

Our fears are stories we tell ourselves about what might happen. By focusing on the worst possible outcomes, we sometimes take actions that lead to the very situations we fear.

Realize that the stories you envision based on fear are your own creations. You are the author of your story, and you are the only one who has the power to change it.

The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.
William James
1842 – 1910

Copyright © 2019 John Chancellor


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