A Message from Fridtjof
This week, a friend from the Temple introduced me to a name with which I was unfamiliar, Fridtjof Nansen. When I looked him up, I was frankly floored that he's not a household name in the States as he is in Scandinavia. If you're unfamiliar with his incredible life, I'll get to the high points shortly. But while I was learning about Fridtjof, I came across something he said once that I wanted to share:
"I demolish my bridges behind me -- then there is no choice but forward."
Of course, it's not hard to see what Fridtjof is trying to convey. But that message is rather at odds with the customary idiom in the words he uses, isn't it? Normally, when we talk about "burning bridges," it has an inescapably negative connotation. It usually means we've irrevocably destroyed some personal or business relationship, or otherwise narrowed our options in some meaningful way. I've burned my bridges with former friends and lovers by abusing or neglecting our friendships. I see people burn their bridges in my law practice every day, with partners, families, and even sometimes society itself. People have even burned bridges on the internet, including here, though I know that's hard to believe.
To grok how Fridtjof turns this paradigm around, it's helpful to know at least the bullet points of his remarkable life. So, in roughly chronological order, Fridtjof:
- Trained himself to become a world-class skier;
- Studied zoology, traveling for months by ship to conduct studies of Arctic mammals;
- Earned a doctorate on the basis of his novel research on the central nervous system;
- Led unprecedented expeditions across Greenland and toward the North Pole;
- Successfully advocated for the partition of Norway from Sweden, the joining of which had been imposed by the Great Powers at the time of the Napoleonic Wars;
- Became his nation's foremost international delegate while also serving as a distinguished professor of oceanography;
- Negotiated the end of a World War I naval blockade that was causing widespread starvation in Europe;
- Helped repatriate half a million prisoners of war;
- Directed Red Cross relief to those afflicted by the horrors of the war and the Bolshevik Revolution; and
- Earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in refugee resettlement.
Any one of these things could arguably have made Fridtjof a national hero, but he did them all, arguably helping to save the lives of a million people or more after an already distinguished career adding a wealth of scientific and geographical knowledge to humanity's stores. Even that last decade of his life, working to ease the refugee crisis after the war, had a profound effect on humanity going forward: for example, one of Fridtjof's great accomplishments was the creation of Nansen passport, eventually accepted in fifty nations, a solution to the problem of refugees not having travel documents enabling them to escape devastation and famine in their homelands. That's fine and good in itself. but what if you then learn that holders of the Nansen passport included the artist Marc Chagall, dancer Anna Pavlova, composer Igor Stravinsky, and novelist Vladimir Nabokov? How much more impoverished would the world have been without the artistry of only these four, let alone the untold hundreds of thousands of others?
Maybe it's not easy to see how a skier becomes an advocate for refugees. And yet, when I lay the high points of his life and career out like that, accounting for all the experiences in between, there's an unmistakable flow to it. The athlete becomes a scientist. That skier-biologist becomes an explorer. The explorer learns enough while shipboard to teach oceanography. The recipient of a hero's welcome parlays his fame into helping the dispossessed and unfortunate. But that's l'histoire, the story we can construct from a birds-eye view. Fridtjof couldn't have had any idea, at any given moment, where life was going to take him next. And yet, he constructed an incredible life and career, one step at a time. Never did Fridtjof allow himself to narrow his options; he didn't "burn bridges," to return to that idiom. But by the same token, never did he allow himself to rest on his past accomplishments either. That to me demonstrates a profound trust in the inexorable flow of the universe. But it also demonstrates the difference between demolishing the path of retreat, of stagnation, and burning the bridges of opportunity still ahead.
Trust in the Force. But burn the bridges only when they're behind you.