Personal Development

How to Survive Hopelessness – The Marginalian

How to Survive Hopelessness

Dougal Robertson (January 29, 1924–September 22, 1991) was still a teenager, the youngest of a Scottish music teacher’s eight children, when he joined the British Merchant Navy. After a Japanese attack on a steamship during WWII killed his wife and young son, he left the navy and moved to Hong Kong, where he eventually met and married a nurse.

Together, they began a new life as dairy farmers in the English countryside, on a farm without electricity or running water. Eventually, they had a daughter, then a son, then a pair of twins.

After nearly two decades on the farm, the family had an unorthodox idea for how to best educate their children, how to show them what a vast and wondrous place the world is, full of all kinds of different people and all kinds of different ways of living: They sold everything they had, bought a schooner, and set out to sail around the world, departing on January 27, 1971.

The Robertson family

After more than a year at sea, just after sailing through the Panama Canal to begin their Pacific crossing, killer whales attacked the schooner 200 miles off the coast of Galapagos, sinking it in less than a minute. They piled into the inflatable life-raft, managed to grab a piece of sail from the water, and rigged it to the 9-foot dinghy they had on board to use it as a tugboat for the raft now housing six human beings.

Suddenly, they were a tiny speck in Earth’s largest ocean, enveloped by the vast open emptiness of infinite horizons. With no nautical instruments or charts, powered only by their makeshift sail, they had no hope of reaching land. Their only chance was rescue by a passing vessel. Given the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, it was an improbability bordering on a miracle.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Seventeen days into their life as castaways, the raft deflated. All they had now was the narrow fiberglass dinghy, its rim barely above the water’s edge with all the human cargo.

By that blind resilience life has of resisting non-life, they persisted, eating turtle meat and sweet flying fish that landed in the bottom of the boat, drinking rainwater and turtle blood. Storms lashed them. Whales menaced them. Thirst and hunger subsumed them. Their bodies were covered in salt-water sores. Enormous ships passed within sight, missing their cries for help. But they pressed on, hoping against hope, toiling in every conceivable way to keep the spark of life aflame.

After 37 days as castaways, chance smiled upon them — a Japanese fishing boat spotted their distress flare and came to their rescue. Their tongues were so swollen from dehydration that they could hardly thank their saviors.

Restaging of the rescue, demonstrating how the family fit inside the dinghy.

Throughout it all, Dougal kept a journal in case they lived — an act itself emblematic of that touching and tenacious optimism by which they survived. He later drew on it to publish an account of the experience, then distilled his learnings in Sea Survival: A Manual (public library).

Nested amid the rigorously practical advice is a poetic sentiment that applies not only to survival at sea but to life itself — a soulful prescription for what it takes to live through those most trying periods when you feel like a castaway from life, beyond the reach of salvation, depleted of hope.

He writes:

I have no words to offer which may comfort the reader who is also a castaway, except that rescue may come at any time but not necessarily when you expect it; and that even if you give up hope, you must never give up trying, for, as the result of your efforts, hope may well return and with justification.

Echoing Einstein’s views on free will and personal responsibility, he adds:

You can expect good and bad luck, but good or bad judgment is your prerogative, as is good or bad management.

This simple advice reads like a Zen koan, to be rolled around the palate of the mind, releasing richer and richer meaning, deeper and deeper assurance each time.

Complement with John Steinbeck on the true meaning and purpose of hope, Jane Goodall on its deepest wellspring, and some thoughts on hope and the remedy for despair from Nick Cave and Gabriel Marcel, then zoom out to the civilizational scale and revisit Road to Survival — that wonderful packet of wisdom on resilience from the forgotten visionary who shaped the modern environmental movement.

Thanks, Nina

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