An Inside Look at Little Mercies

June 8, 2005 | 42 comments

Let me tell you one small mercy of our Lord’s.

A few weeks ago Sara and I were on the Oregon coast (my boss had bought us a stay there). Waves crashing futilely against great rocks and dissolving in wild, white fountains, wind and rain, seagulls shrieking somewhere above. I liked it immensely.

Still, as we were about to leave, I had a dark experience. I suddenly envisioned a tidal wave sweeping along the shore, burying us in dark water and dirt and boards and concrete slabs. I saw perfectly that in such conditions (my body incapable of understanding that escape was hopeless) I might well claw and trample my wife, if she were in the way of wherever my frenzied instincts told me might be air. It was horrible. I couldn’t brush it off, either. We like to kid ourselves that the real measure of man is what he does when he’s calm and has time to think. This is nonsense. A man is what he is, instincts and all. It would be me, not my body, clawing at my wife.

I was shaken. And then I saw, clearly, that my imagined dark experience was real for some. My brothers and sisters have died trapped, fighting like animals with the ones whom they loved for the futile hope of breath. * Their bodies betrayed them. Why, God? Why? Nobility in suffering I can understand, but nobility in betraying everything you’ve ever lived for? What was their fault? They sinned by not practicing drowning enough to learn self-control?

I shoved the thought aside and tried to think and say cheerful things on the drive home. I successfully forgot all about it.

Recently I ran across some accounts ofthe origin of the Birkenhead Drill (the Birkenhead Drill is ‘women and children first!’). In 1852 a troop transport called the Birkenhead ran up on an uncharted reef off the South African coast in 1852. Everyone boiled up to the deck. Lt. Col. Seton, the commanding officer, ordered his men into ranks while the wives and children were loaded aboard the ship’s cutter. When the cutter had drawn off, the ship’s captain proposed abandoning ship. “Lt-Col Seton, his sword still drawn, raised his hands above his head and told his men, ‘You will swamp the cutter containing the women and children. I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast.’” They did stand fast. They shook hands and said goodbye as the ship sunk. A deed it would be worth almost any price to have to one’s credit.

I told a friend about it today who could appreciate that sort of thing. We got to talking. I realized why Colonel Seton had asked his men not to abandon ship and why they didn’t. He knew and they knew that their resolve to sacrifice themselves was a fine but fragile thing. Who knew if they could restrain themselves, once they couldn’t breathe, from swimming to the cutter? Best to give it more time to pull away. Part of their heroism was their knowing the weakness of their own instincts and their taking steps to avoid it.

Out of nowhere the impression came to me,”are you comforted now?” And then I saw that though I had put my anguish about the evil of instincts to one side, He had not. Indeed, he had used that same imagination and empathy that had me question instincts in the first place to show me that a certain kind of heroism was impossible without them.

Perhaps the Birkenhead Drill doesn’t justify instincts much to you. Perhaps you’re right. I think redemption and justification are darker and bloodier ground than we’re prone to think, but perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps you think there are other, better justifications for instincts. There you are certainly right; I’ve thought of some myself and time allowing I’ll post them today. But that’s not the point. For me, the Birkenhead Drill was the perfect salve to my concern, and the Lord’s leading me to it shows that he is mindful even of my stray, painful thoughts. It is good to know that.

* Update: This is not hypothetical. I’ve since heard of some of the accounts of the rare U-boat survivors in WWII. They talk about the special comradeship the members of the crew felt for each other and then the wild tearing and biting when the hull was breached and they fought against each other and the high-pressure water shooting in to get out.


42 Responses to An Inside Look at Little Mercies

  1. Wilfried on June 8, 2005 at 11:25 am

    Beautiful post, Adam. The lesson is valuable. Stay away from temptations, learn to create distances, for indeed instincts can become overpowering before we realize it. Thanks for reminding us.

  2. danithew on June 8, 2005 at 11:25 am

    I had heard the term “Birkenhead Drill” before but never really understood it or heard the origin of the term. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  3. Amira on June 8, 2005 at 11:44 am

    Thank you, Adam. You’ve given me some things to think about. A friend of mine was recently sentenced to a very long prison term because of one small lie; at least, it started out as one small lie. Gradually, those lies became instincitve and inflicted incredible harm on many people.

  4. annegb on June 8, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    Adam, I worry about this type of thing all the time. I worry about how courageous I would be because I feel very cowardly.

    Nice to know I’m not the only one.

  5. Randy on June 8, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    Adam, your post makes my stomach queasy, probably because it resonates too closely with my own fear of failure in sudden catastrophe. Adversity and catastrophe are very different animals, and since we humans are also very different animals from person to person, our responses will naturally vary. But, oh how I wish we could all go down with the sinking ship shaking hands and saying calm goodbeyes.

    There are some factors I don’t believe you have fully fleshed out, and these factors play pivotal roles in our response to sudden catastrophe. First, our physical condition. Although I am loathe to cite the movie Titanic for any weighty point, there is a scene in that movie that moves me. It is the scene where the old, heavy-set couple hold each other in bed as the ship sinks. Those folks remind me of my parents–venerable and stoic but not physically able to do anything in the face of the impending doom. If we know we physically have no chance of survival, we are more apt to go gently into the night.

    Second, our age. Again, I point to the scene from Titanic (and again cringe in doing so). Wisdom does not always come with age but age is almost always necessary for one to be truly wise. This retrospective vantage point can be calming in the face of cataclysm.

    Contrast that scene with a young 19-year-old missionary serving in a foriegn country or a 19-year old soldier in Iraq. What would their abled-body survival instincts cause them to do in the face of immediate, life-threatening harm? Does not the soldier, even though conditioned to stay, abandon his post and companions to save his own life?

    Adam, I don’t know you personally, but I assume you are not aged and not physically handicapped. You may have aspirations to civility and nobility in the face of the dark tidal wave, you may even plan the details of your defense, but as Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get hit.”

  6. Randy on June 8, 2005 at 12:41 pm

    Excuse my typos. I am trying to blog and work and don’t have time to edit.

  7. Davis Bell on June 8, 2005 at 3:45 pm

    Beautiful, Mr. Adam Greenwood.

    What do you mean when you say, ” I think redemption and justification are darker and bloodier ground than we’re prone to think?”

  8. A. Greenwood on June 8, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    I don’t think they’re very pretty or schematic or clean.

  9. Davis Bell on June 8, 2005 at 7:05 pm

    I am inclined to agree.

  10. Justin H on June 9, 2005 at 12:49 am

    I really enjoyed this, Adam. Thanks.

    On my mission, with a companion I really cared for (I thought), I had a relevant experience, though on a much smaller scale.

    We were knocking doors and went around a corner to see, right in our faces, the meanest looking snarl you can imagine, with a couple hundred pounds of vicious mutt right behind it. Instinct kicked in and in my frantic retreat I shoved off of the nearest stationary object to give me an extra boost, like a runner straining against the blocks after the starting gun sounds.

    Sadly, my companion happened to be that object–a fact I didn’t discover until he joshed me about it when we had both caught our breath on the other side of a tall fence.

    It turned out that the dog was chained, so neither of us was in any real danger. And though he ribbed me about it for the rest of our companionship, I really don’t think that he felt as if I’d betrayed him.

    After reading about the Birkenhead Drill, I wish that I could say that I felt guilty for shoving my comp, or that I felt I’d let him down. I don’t. That may say more about me than about any general principle of self-sacrifice, but perhaps there is a difference between situations where one has time to think and those that demand immediate action.

  11. Soyde River on June 9, 2005 at 9:18 am

    Adam, read “Lord Jim”, by Joseph Conrad. Jim faces exactly that kind of moment, and fails. He spends the rest of his life trying to make amends. A powerful story, and Conrad knew how to explore the depths of the human soul.

    However, from what I know of you, I do not think you would trample your loved ones trying to get to safety. We can overcome the natural man.

  12. Cort McMurray on June 9, 2005 at 9:36 am

    Most of the best mission stories involve cowardice, betrayal, and big snarling dogs. I ran from more than my share of mutant hellhounds, leaving more than my share of companions in my wake. Just a few more pieces of vinyl siding on that nice little split level I’m building in the Terrestrial Kingdom…

    Somebody once said that an inspring story to an Englishman involves impossible odds, spectacular failure, and horrible death. What separates the Birkenhead Drill from tales of lads choking down poison gas in the Maginot Line trenches, or Robert Scott freezing to death in Antarctica, is Adam’s observation that there’s plenty of blood and horror in the process of redemption. Think of how much pain, how much fear there was on both the doomed ship, and the survivors’ vessel! (I wonder what it felt like to be a wife or a child on that resuce ship, watching a loved one die.) They were terrfied, and they drained the cup anyway. Every once in a while, usually in not so dramatic or final a fashion, we get our chances to glimpse Gethsemane. Most of the time, we close our eyes and run away.

  13. Mark B. on June 9, 2005 at 11:47 am

    Well, Cort, one minor problem with the lads choking on poison gas in Maginot Line trenches is that there weren’t any.

    The Maginot Line was constructed after the first World War, and was manned solely by French troops when the Germans avoided it entirely in their invasion of France in May and June of 1940 (and no poison gas was used in battle in WW2).

    I suspect that you meant lads choking on poison gas in the trenches of the Western Front.

  14. A. Greenwood on June 9, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    “Think of how much pain, how much fear there was on both the doomed ship, and the survivors? vessel! (I wonder what it felt like to be a wife or a child on that resuce ship, watching a loved one die.) ”

    Many of the survivor’s accounts mention that there a number of sharks in the water. A couple of the wives were able to witness their husbands getting eaten.

    “Most of the best mission stories involve cowardice, betrayal, and big snarling dogs.”

    My mission taught me that my instincts are just as often to come out swinging. I’m only a gutless coward for sure when I have time to think about it.

  15. A. Greenwood on June 9, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for the ‘Lord Jim’ recommendation. I’ll look into it.

  16. Cort McMurray on June 9, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    You’re right, Mark B. That’s what I get for hanging around smart people…

  17. Jim H. on June 9, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Excellent, thoughtful post, Adam.

    #12 Eloquent response, Cort. I’m gonna adopt that “glimpsing Gethsemane” idea and make it my own – hope ya don’t mind.

    I need to hang around you guys more often. I’m deepened and challenged here. It’s good.

  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 9, 2005 at 6:32 pm

    Does not the soldier, even though conditioned to stay, abandon his post and companions to save his own life?

    Interesting, how each of us fairs when faced with death. I don’t know how I would react. I know what my wife did ( cf ) and when my dad’s area got overrun in Viet Nam, he stayed put and kept up fire from the bunker while everyone else ran and he kept it up until the Koreans retook his part of the base. I know what he did, then and at other times.

    So no, not everyone abandons their post and companions to save themselves.

  19. annegb on June 9, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    I’ve tried to feed several of my dearest friends to mean dogs, telling the dogs that my friends are much tastier than I.

  20. Diebold on June 9, 2005 at 11:24 pm

    At gunpoint, in peril of death he exclaimed “True blue, through and through, dyed in the wool Mormon.”

    Do you need to lie to save your life? No.

    Do you need to push aside loved ones to save your life? No.

    We do need to speak of these things before they happen spiritually and physically. Thank you for the conversation.

  21. Justin H on June 10, 2005 at 9:51 am

    That may be true, Diebold, but as Justin B. over at Mormon Wasp just posted, apparently Brigham Young at one point felt he needed to practice a deception to save his own life. He may not have “lied,” but he certainly didn’t stand up and declare his Mormonism in the face of the marshal sent to collect him.

  22. Adam Greenwood on June 10, 2005 at 10:15 am

    So Brigham Young let someone borrow his cloak and ride in his buggy.

    (1) This is so far from lying that your use of the scare quotes can only be described as foolish and
    (2) Brigham Young’s actions were considered, not instinctive.

    But other than that, its highly relevant. Heaven forbid that there be real examples of heroism in our history.

  23. Justin H on June 10, 2005 at 10:51 am

    Well then, I am a foolish coward.

  24. Justin H on June 10, 2005 at 11:01 am

    But I do want to point out, lest my comments have caused undue offense, that I highly value heroism. (And scare quotes, but that’s another post.)

    In mentioning my own story above and the story of Brigham Young deceiving his way out of jail, I didn’t mean to decry heroes or idolize weasels. I was just pointing out that there are many ways to handle a situation, and sometimes “coming out swinging” isn’t the most advisable. Sometimes it is.

    I completely agree that there’s a difference, by the way, between situations where consideration leads to a different reaction than instinct. (See the end of my comment 10.)

    In fact, I think you and I would make a good team, Adam. You’d face up to the danger and go down swinging, and I’d run to safety, ensuring that someone would be around to tell the glorious tale of your courage! :-)

  25. Susan M on June 10, 2005 at 11:07 am

    It is impossible to know how you’ll react in a life-threatening situation until you’ve faced one.

    Years ago when my children were babies and my husband messed up on meds a shrink proscribed him, I worked as a bank teller. It was in a grocery store branch, so the teller windows were really close to each other. One night the teller two windows away from me (the window between us was empty) was robbed. I didn’t notice what was happening at first, but saw her emptying her drawer out of the corner of my eye. So I pretended I didn’t know at all what was going on. My first thought was, “I can’t die now. I can’t leave Daniel on his own with the kids.” and my second thought was, “What if our manager in the back room comes out asking, ‘OK, who tripped the alarm now?’” (I always heard stories about banks being robbed and managers thinking it was a teller accidentally tripping the alarm.)

    So what’d I do? I walked away, into the back room, and told the manager the alarm was real.

    I still feel bad for leaving the other teller out there alone with a robber.

  26. A. Greenwood on June 10, 2005 at 11:50 am

    It’s hard to know what else you could have done useful, Susan M. In fact, that you were able to reflect calmly and stave off one possible source of friction speaks highly of your resourcefulness. Maybe you should join the Adam G./Justin H. team. You’d be the sensible one.

  27. Cort McMurray on June 10, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    There’s nothing more wearying than hypothetical courage.

    You know what? When somebody points a gun in my face and asks me if I’m a Mormon, I’ll say “Yessiree, true blue and dyed in the wool,” just like everybody else, and we’ll all sit down and eat pie.

    In the meantime, I’ll be in my house with the blinds closed, watching “The Best Two Years” and praying the neighbors don’t knock…

  28. A. Greenwood on June 10, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    I left my copy of the I Ching at home, so could you please tell me what this means?

  29. Cort McMurray on June 10, 2005 at 6:25 pm

    Most of us are never going to placed in a high drama situation. We’re not going to be asked to go down with the ship, or storm the battlements, or be thrown into prison because of our beliefs.

    Most of us are going to live fairly uneventful, workaday lives. Our courage is not challenged in a single blinding flash. We’re expected to love our neighbors, and do missionary work, and show genuine kindness to the people with “Will Work for Food” signs, and gladly sustain our bishop (even though we know, in our heart of hearts, that he’s a boob), and generally have the image of Christ engraven on our countenances. Call it cumulative courage. Frankly, dying a spectacular death is easier.

    What I was trying to say is that it’s covenient to say that we’ll boldly bravely give our all for The Cause, when the reality is that most Church members are, in the words of Elder Maxwell, “so lacking in enthusiasm for [Christian living].”

    Living on Planet Mormon — a cinema of our own, literature of our own, a home school of our own — is a sign of that lack of entusiasm, that certain cowardice. I worry about losing my soul, not from running in the face of danger, but from being unwilling to leave my comfort zone, just to be nice to somebody.

  30. A. Greenwood on June 10, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    Well, if that’s what you meant, that’s what you meant. I don’t see the connections between “cumulative cowardice” and, say, homeschooling, but no matter. No doubt the connections are there for the discerning. My next question is, why?

    Why did you think a warning of the dangers of conveniently assuming that we’ll all be brave in a pinch was necessary?

  31. Soyde River on June 11, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    If homeschooling is wrong, then it was probably wrong for the city of Enoch to hang together so that they could be taken up into heaven. They should have been out there educating the masses!

  32. Jack on June 11, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    “Living on Planet Mormon – a cinema of our own, literature of our own, a home school of our own – is a sign of that lack of entusiasm, that certain cowardice. I worry about losing my soul, not from running in the face of danger, but from being unwilling to leave my comfort zone, just to be nice to somebody.”

    I’m so lacking in enthusiasm that I don’t worry about losing my soul anymore because of a lack of enthusiasm.

  33. Soyde River on June 11, 2005 at 8:24 pm

    I don’t think there is any doubt that for most of us the supreme challenge is not to die for the gospel, but to live by the gospel. We are unlikely to face the one great defining moment, but instead, our spiritual cowardice will be shown not as a Birkenhead Drill, but as the death by a thousand cuts.

    On the other hand, I believe there is great value in facing hypothetical great challenges in our mind, because they define things far more clearly for us. Further, they also bring the benefit that we will make the right decision, if we are ever faced with that particular situation, or one like unto it.

    Year ago, I remember hearing the tape recording of the last words spoken in the cockpit of a doomed Delta flight. The plane was going down, but the voices in the cockpit were calm, as they tried to bring the plane to level flight. No panic, no desperation.

    Why was that? Well, they had faced many situations similar to that in the flight simulator. The airline company had tried to prepare them so that they would not react in panic, but rather to do so in a calm, composed way. If there was a way out of their difficulties, it would not be found in reacting in a panic.

    Similarly, if we think in advance as to how we would react if faced with a life or death situation, it is more likely that we would make the correct decision if it ever came to that point.

    In addition, the pondering of what we would do if it came to the “sticking point” illuminates clearly what is truly important for us, and may help us in defining much more clearly what we should do when faced with a minor decision.

  34. Jack on June 11, 2005 at 10:27 pm

    I think that most folks will experience a “defining moment” or two in their lives. The thing is, no matter how well you prepare for it–it’s going to blind side you. Though it may not come in a way so as to tax your courage, still, it might come in a way so as to challenge your faith right down to the very foundations. I had an experience like that, and after two years of picking up the pieces of my testimony, I still haven’t put it all back together yet–one of the reasons being that some of the pieces won’t fit anymore. We need destructive experiences (the good kind!) in our lives once in a while.

  35. Diebold on June 12, 2005 at 12:01 am

    Anyone patterning their life after Christ will run into the obstacles Christ and his disciples faced. If they’re not happening now, be patient, they will soon.

    Seriously, it seems you are afraid you won’t have a moment to be tried by fire!

    Cort, Stop trying to spread carrion comfort. It’s okay to talk about strength and bravery.

    Feed the hungry, but let your hungry heart find nourishment with stories of people who either by strategum, fight or patience faced the unfaceable. When your time comes, your efforts with history and peace will give you your own answer. You will have moments like that, and probably already are.

  36. Cort McMurray on June 14, 2005 at 11:17 am


    I’m suggesting that faith and fear are companions. Could Peter have ever become that man who spoke with authority of “the more sure word of prophecy,” if he hadn’t first been the coward who “wept bitter tears” on a dark night in Jerusalem?

    I’d like to think that the young missionary who ran from the dog felt a little ashamed, and a little humble, then he and his companion laughed about it, and went out and taught the best lesson of their lives.

    If Alma is to be believed, every second of mortality is a defining moment. We’ve all had a million of ‘em. Great, throbbing episodes of Noble Drama are wonderful if you’re staging “Les Miserables;” life is greyer, messier, scarier, and ultimately, more dependent on the saving mercies of Christ.

    Wislawa Szymborska said it well in her poem “Our Ancerstors’ Brief Lives”:

    Good and evil –
    they knew little of them, but knew all:
    when evil triumphs, good goes into hiding;
    when good is manifest, then evil lies low.
    Neither can be conquered
    or cast off beyond return
    Hence, if joy, then with a touch of fear.
    If despair, then not without some quiet hope.

    It’s a “compound in one,” something that gets lost in more Weemsish tales of Fearless Heroes.

    [Homeschooling remark deleted]

  37. Adam Greenwood on June 14, 2005 at 11:52 am

    I see no particular reason why this thread should become a forum for a homeschooling debate. Unless I can be persuaded otherwise, attacks (and defenses) of homeschooling will be deleted.

  38. Randy on June 14, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    Adam, your reaction is hasty, it seems. Before deleted, the post seemed only tangentially related to homeschool at most. Touchy, touchy. C’mon, man — you are going a little overboard here.

  39. A. Greenwood on June 15, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    What post you talking about, Randy? I deleted a two sentence attack on homeschooling at the tag end of Cort McMurray’s comment.

  40. terry on July 3, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    To An Old Man Dying

    So, now you’ve grown old,
    That is not the reason why.
    You’ve just become afraid.
    Now, you know you can die.

    When you were young
    That seemed impossible to be.
    Death held no fear for you
    Nor, I admit, for me.

    But now you’ve grown old,
    and dust has gathered your memories.
    Death is no longer a rumour
    It is now the dread surcease.

    You read that you must rage,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    That seemed much easier to say
    When you did not fear each night.

    Now, now you will go softly
    You’re afraid to make a scene.
    Your age has softened your resolve
    And you are not what you have been.

  41. Adam Greenwood on December 6, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    Soyde River,
    I read Conrad’s Lord Jim at your recommendation. I recommend it. It was a book about funking your one big test of courage, lying about it to yourself, in a way, and the consequences.

  42. Bookslinger on February 26, 2006 at 11:08 pm

    “Lord Jim” was also a good movie, 1965, starring Peter O’toole.

    We had to read it in high school freshman English class, and then we got to see the movie.


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