Thursday, December 15, 2011

Op Ed: Priorities

A Mother's Wish

A hundred years ago this week, Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. However, he had been to the continent earlier (1899), being trapped in the ice over the winter. But this was the beginning of a life of adventure that would lead to his death half-way around the world in Arctic waters several years later. We can ponder what would have happened if he had kept his promise to his mother after she died. She had kept him from life on the sea and insisted that he become a doctor. He promised to go to school towards that goal but left school soon after she died.

If he had honored the promise, he may well have been a doctor in Norway rather than an explorer setting records. He may have saved lives instead of losing his own. But what if his lack of leadership had caused an international failure to dare to reach the poles when they did? Would the British have pursued the task a few years later? And without lessons learned earlier, would they have succeeded anyway?

The Butterfly Effect is a hard one to figure, of course. And the decisions of a pioneer are not always as far reaching as one might think. But the fact that a man chose to defy what many would consider a "sacred" trust in the search for fame, fortune or just curiosity, is one that shows that priorities are sometimes skewed. Someone else would have taken up the challenge, most likely, and history would not have changed much at all. But the lives of hundreds back home may have turned the tide of European history a generation (or two) later.

Again, this is the opinion of just one writer, but when we consider the many lives lost climbing mountains "just because they are there," and going "where no man has been before" for dubious benefits from the efforts, we should step back and consider our priorities. Is the urge for discovery the unknown always worth it?

Such 'second guessing' in alternate history helps us to explore with the imagination without risk of life. We go where no one can go - a reality that is possible and even probable, but never happened. The way things are have come about for reasons we cannot fully understand. On the other hand, when we venture with our informed imaginations, we can learn lessons more easily applied to decisions we make every day. In that way, we can make a difference where we are for the time we are in the present. We can leave the future of this world in the hands of others when we "control" the world of our imagination!

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