In 1916, Ernest Shackleton and his men accomplished a seemingly impossible feat requiring complete unity. Their once proud ship had been smashed by the ice flows around Antarctica, and the tight-knit crew was stranded for months on the ice and later on Elephant Island with little hope of rescue.
Shackleton resolved to take five men from his crew to risk the 720-nautical-mile journey back to the South Georgia whaling stations, where he knew he could find help. So they set off through the Drake Passage — the roughest patch of water on Earth. And they did so in a 20-foot open boat — sometimes with oars and others times by sail. The adventurers fought through mammoth waves, screaming winds, crushing ice, and powerful currents with a leaky hull, a lost anchor, and foul drinking water.
When the bedraggled sailors finally entered the small South Georgian cove and hauled the boat onto the rocks, they were heavily bearded, their hair was almost to their shoulders, their faces were black with grime, and their clothes were ragged. They were parched, weak, and pained with frozen blisters, but remarkably, they had successfully returned to South Georgia 521 days after their departure from the island — in a miraculous feat of united courage.
Accomplishments like Shackleton’s simply don’t happen without the principles that produce unity, which is a shared perception of “we-ness” — that we are all in this together. This elusive concept is connected with community, sacrifice, and a responsibility we have as humans towards each other, along with a deep-seated need to strive as a group toward a common goal. At a very basic level, we want to harmonize with those around us — and implicitly recognize its benefits.
Yet unity seems to be increasingly difficult to come by in America today. In an age where we’re forgetting why unity matters, it can be valuable to reflect again on what unity actually means — and what brings it into reality. Below, I take up three foundational underpinnings of unity that Shackleton and his men possessed: a shared vision, strong leadership, and mutual acceptance. As simple as they might seem, these patterns work, whether talking about unity in teams at work or unity in our community or nation. So, why not embrace principles so plain and precious? To close the essay, I’ll dig into why unity seems to be unraveling at accelerating rates and what we can do to preserve it in America.