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The City That Raised Me - The Warmth of Minus Forty

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You peer out the blinds across the front yard.  Deep space darkness out there.  The car-starter has tried and tried, but your vehicle sits there, an overpriced ice cube. You have to run out there and plug it in.  You open the door and a puff of condensation bursts through the crack like a cloud of smoke escaping a chimney. You bolt down the driveway as the temperature assaults your skin like an Antarctic polar dip.  You try to take a breath, and it feels like liquid nitrogen.  Your heart stops for a second because, well, it froze.  Welcome to Fort McMurray winters.

We’ve all been there.  The moment of questioning why you live here.  Your heavy-duty extension cord snapping like a piece of Christmas peanut brittle.  Your lashes freezing your eyes shut.  Even your dog, desperate for a pee outside, stands in front of the open door like “nah dude, I’m good.  I may die, but I’ll hold it.”

Before his expedition to the South Pole Ernest Shackleton is said to have taken out an ad in the London Times that read “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

Shackleton was supposedly flooded with 5,000 responses.  “Ah, when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.”

Something I wonder if we’re losing in our five-dollar macchiato, heated seat, insta-everything life is the almost archaic idea that pain is not only good for us, but healthy.  That there’s an appeal in inviting hardship.  In his book “Anti-fragile” Nassim Taleb discusses the many things that not only withstand pressure, but actually need it to grow. 

The easiest example is going to the gym, putting stress and pressure on our musculoskeletal system in order to strengthen it.  Economies need the seemingly destructive practise of competition in order to grow and have the strongest, superior products and services emerge.  The circle of life is full of individually violent and harsh events and conditions that are the foundation for the thriving of an ecosystem.

The human spirit is often like this as well.  Many religious practises for those searching for a spiritual depth often go through difficult, even painful processes to achieve this end of detachment.  Giving away all material possessions like St. Francis of Assisi or the Buddha.  Painful.  Fasting for extended periods, days--even weeks--like Ghandi or Christ in the desert.  Painful.  Seneca, one of Rome’s wealthiest businessmen and prominent Stoic philosophers would often leave the luxury of his palace, servants and convenience to put on rags and wander the streets of Rome, sleeping in doorways and begging for food, asking himself “Is this the condition you so feared?” 

Is it really THAT bad?  From Shackleton’s men to these spiritual athletes, all were in search of something arcane, something past the physical comforts around us.  Either a deeper capacity to see truth, which the cares or luxuries of the day often distract us from.  Or a visceral strength, often known only to the luxuriously detached.  Benedict XVI summed it up well when he said, “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”

The Spartans--whose reputation for lives of intense discipline needs no further illustration--used to take their young boys and plunge them into the icy cold rivers to build up a level of comfort with discomfort.  I’m not suggesting this, but I also read recently that “parents shouldn’t handicap kids by giving them an easy life.”

Martin Cyril D’Arcy said, “All that is best within us revolts against coddling, and the denial of all risk and adventure.”  Expanded by Fulton Sheen who wrote, “Pain in itself is not unbearable; it is the failure to understand its meaning that is unbearable.”

Pain makes us grow.  But only if we become friends with it.  If we do not acclimatize ourselves to it, when pain is thrust upon us from the fates of life—which they can and will do--we will be left unable to bear it.  Know however, that today, in our bubble-wrapped world, pain is now an elective.  Our character is made resilient through intentional doses of pain.  We build up to strong.  Fort Mac strong. 

Come at me minus forty. 


“Pain serves a purpose.  Mountains keep the weak away from whatever lies on the other side of them.” —Joe De Sena