Most of us stand in shadows, we don’t get, or want, the spotlight. There’s modesty here, most of us do alright and we keep doing it, heroically I think. Most of us won’t get the opportunity to lead, and many of us wouldn’t be as good at it as we are at not leading. We keep to the lower decks, we know that we’re kind of indispensible, and we know that when the booty is distributed those up on the poop get more than us. Part of the heroism is that we don’t mind this; we take what we get and reckon it’s better not to be greedy. Another part of the heroism is our durability and longevity, we take more than the booty, we are the mirrors to their Dorian, suited and primped, soaking up their ambition and insecurity and vision, acting them out.
Another, and surely the most important, part is that we like this arrangement. A decent soul to offer the comforts of authority is a blessing and if you’re lucky enough (as I am) then you know not to mess with it. Furthermore in order to secure this blessing we offer up some hefty loyalties, courageous judgements and hopes are invested in institutionally vouched for strangers and friends. We remain faithful, we turn up over and over again. We can never really be sure that the faith is valid, but we keep it. We fix our own mistakes and update the footer. We plan and mortgage ourselves to the security of our arrangements, to the faith being kept. The future is a projection of our faith. We need the faith to make all those timesheeted and billable hours a life.
The faith makes us pretty vulnerable. Downturn, fluctuation, restructures, alignment variation, cost cutting: doesn’t take many words for the faith to be nothing. It should, occasionally, make everyone a little nervous sometimes. I know I feel my scalp aflame every time I make an application for leave, as if the faith might be broken over a long weekend, betrayed! But no, most of the time I believe and I accept that I will sometimes feel some anxiety in this situation. In my kinder moments I imagine that the Dorians do too. Many others are more vulnerable than them though, and mainly I reserve my kinder moments for them: courtesy, kindness, acknowledgment.
These gestures of solidarity to those also giving up their time on earth as an act of faithfulness, and less recompense, often seem to be shallow and inadequate, nothing you can eat or sell. This morning though I think they really are the appropriate gestures because they’re the silent accompaniments to the act of faith, they are the necessary solemnity that parallels giving up that which cannot be returned, time. It’s a big gift and it needs to be seen without scale. To be part of thing which receives many such gifts is to be part of a thing constructed from the vulnerabilities of the faithful. A frighteningly fragile Fabergé egg of a thing really, so it makes sense to take great care.
I was reading last night about Fridtjof Nansen and it was all very polar and celebratory. All heroes in white and hardships endured for the glory of Norway. As I was reading about the journey of the Fram and the great sledge to Nansen’s farthest North I wondered about his companion Hjalmar Johansen. The book I was reading, Fergus Fleming’s Off the Map, described him most uncharitably:
Johansen was a born complainer, physically strong but psychologically weak, who depended on the guidance of others. (He would later become an alcoholic, whose directionless career ended in suicide).
Not what you’d think of as a good reference but still the guy had gone with Nansen all the way to the farthest North and back to Franz Josef Land and stayed alive the whole winter and had made it all the way. It would be a big thing, really big, life bending. Why then is he regarded so poorly, as to warrant an ouchingly hard appraisal from a writer as amused by nineteenth century incompetence as Fergus Fleming? Chasing it up this morning it’s clear to me that Fleming does considerable disservice to Johansen and that considerable disservice was done to Johansen in his lifetime, that is to say before his suicide.
Nansen took pretty good care of Johansen when they got back from the arctic, not buddy-buddy, but helping him get a commission in the Norwegian infantry and later recommending him to Roald Amundsen for the South Pole expedition. Which is not to say that Johansen did well, he clearly struggled with family life (his wife left him and took the children back to the family in Skien) and professional duties (he left the army due to his drinking) but he was who he was and was acknowledged as such. After Amundsen everything went wrong. On the first, unsuccessful, attempt on the South Pole the party separates, dog sleds leading, sledgers behind, skiers behind that and walkers behind them some hours away. Amundsen, as the leader, was with the dogs and made it back to Framheim on the Bay of Whales quite nicely, the rest straggled in as the weather began to turn really sour. Last of all to come in was Johansen, carrying his young colleague Kristian Prestrud barely conscious. Next morning Johansen pointed out a number of hard truths about polar leadership to Amundsen, apparently comparing Amundsen unfavourably to Nansen. Amundsen then re-organized the whole party separating off Johansen, Prestrud and his young buddy Stubberud and sending them for a long, long ski (to no particular purpose) in King Edward VII Land while the polar party did their thing and beat Scott. TO make sure the insult wasn’t actually veiled, Prestrud was placed in command of the King Edward VII Land trip.
Later, at landfall in Tasmania, Amundsen sacked Johansen from the expedition and ordered him to return home separately. He was dead a year later. Amundsen did not take care of Johansen. He didn’t acknowledge Johansen was even there in him books about the South Pole expedition. He ignored him, and was deeply unkind. Learning all this today it’s clear to me that courtesy, kindness, acknowledgment matter enormously. Few kinds of work could be more an act of faith than polar exploration and treating that faith respectfully might have saved Johansen’s life. I understand that I’m not the first to suspect Johansen has been hard done by, that Ragnar Kvam Jr. has uncovered a great deal of new material regarding Amundsen’s turning against Johansen in his book The Third Man. But the gist of his archival work is that Johansen took everything Amundsen could throw at him and then couldn’t go on. Johansen’s faith in the value of his time on earth was gone.
I don’t think Johansen was looking for the spotlight. He would have been happy in the shadows, he was always the man “with Nansen.” In many respects all employees are spending time with Nansen on the ice: following where led, doing all that we can assist and sustain, not minding when reassigned, keeping the faith in the journey, in the pursuit, in the value of our time spent. We are all journeying to unknown lands and the fealty we keep to each other is what keeps each other alive. These are acts of care, of courtesy, of kindness and acknowledgement. They’re heroic too, even more so when we offer the same cares to the like of Amundsen. Being aware of this, being aware that everyone else is doing this too, is a substantial act of solidarity with other employees, with all those not, ultimately, in charge.
Out there, on the ice, we all walk beside our own personal Nansen, hoping for him to take the same care of us as we take of him.