Exploration of exploration: A cautionary tale
Throughout history, exploration was the one field really going places. Adventurers, scholars and treasure-seekers opened the world, and their story carries a powerful lesson: be careful what you go looking for, and what you’re willing to do to find it.
Though it’s not widely known, much of the world was “discovered” because rich and powerful people believed in a lost Christian kingdom that amounted to heaven on Earth. The rumours started in 1145.
According to the prevailing story, the paradise was ruled by Prester John, a Christian king descended from the Three Wisemen. His realm was somewhere in the east, and filled with gold, jewels, spices and exotic creatures, all under constant threat by surrounding enemies.
There was no crime or vice in the kingdom, which was also home to the Fountain of Youth.
So, beginning with Pope Alexander III, the wealthy and influential sent out massive expeditions to find Prester John and his people and, in the process, huge swathes of India and other Asian countries were mapped. When the nobility decided the elusive kingdom wasn’t there, they turned to Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, opening the door to slavery and the colonial exploitation of the whole continent.
Almost 400 years later, it was a similar story when word spread of El Dorado, an entire city made of gold, lost in the deep jungles of South America. The myth set in motion a mad search by the likes of Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh and Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who ravaged Mexico and massacred most of the Aztecs.
In places like Colombia and Venezuela, treasure-seekers looking for leads tortured and enslaved indigenous people and plundered whatever was worth taking.
Even the North Pole was caught up in a similar hysteria. In the 16th century, explorers believed the roof of the world was covered by a warm open sea. They thought the area’s six months of continual daylight would melt any ice that might otherwise surface, meaning there must be an easy shortcut atop Canada to the riches of Asia.
It set off a furious race to be first across.
Dozens of lives were lost. The dream of a clear Northwest Passage just beyond the initial ice persisted until 1881 when George Washington De Long and 19 others perished in a relentless pursuit of what we now know was pure fantasy.
Be careful what you go looking for, and what you’re willing to do to find it.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to explore uncharted territory in our lives. Growth and opportunity arise when we open ourselves to new options and take a chance on new challenges. We all need to put aside fear and complacency to step outside our comfort zone and embrace a measure of risk, adventure and uncertainty.
It keeps us motivated and interesting. Exploration stretches, broadens, and matures us. It stops us from getting stale, staid and stagnant.
But only if we’re looking for the right things, for the right reasons. So let’s be clear. There’s no heaven on Earth; no place of perfection.
You won’t find it in a new relationship, a new job, a new tax bracket or a new church. Even if those things were perfect, your own humanity would soon mess things up.
Yet we often dismiss or sacrifice rich blessings right in front of us to go in search of myth or fantasy, perhaps because we think we’re missing out, or we’re afraid of getting older (many are still looking for that Fountain of Youth), or we’re bored and deluded into thinking happiness will be found in the new and novel.
Today reminds me of ancient Athens where the people “seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21), and pursuing the latest things, no doubt. Let’s remember there will always be The Next Big Thing, whether it’s a device, a diet or a delusion about what will bring us lasting happiness.
As people of faith, we’re to honour God and serve others. But endless comparison with everybody else leads to deep discontentment with what we have and how we live, especially when fuelled by popular culture and social media.
So check your motives. Don’t slip subconsciously into envy, covetousness, competition, or the need for popularity and approval. All of that makes it easier to exploit others to serve our own greed or ambition.
And, keep in mind, there is no quick and easy passage to prosperity or proficiency. To paraphrase Proverbs 21:15, “Good planning and hard work lead to success, but hasty shortcuts lead to disaster.”
The shifting ice of envy is still deadly, especially when it traps us in a place where we’re not willing to put in the time and effort that brought success to those we resent. “I’d give my life to play like you,” a woman once said to master violinist Fritz Kreisler (18751962). “I did,” he replied.
Expand your horizons. Explore your possibilities. Expend your energy. But only in the pursuit of what’s real and truly valuable. Or the only thing you’ll discover is your own stupidity.
Share your thoughts with Rick Gamble at email@example.com. He pastors an independent, non-denominational church in Brantford called Followers of Christ (www.followers.ca) and teaches Media at Laurier Brantford.
The dream of a clear Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic persisted until 1881 when George Washington De Long and 19 others perished in a relentless pursuit of what we now know was pure fantasy. writes columnist Rick Gamble.