Discovering character in the Amazon

river-of-doubtIn 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt — having lost a third-party run at a third presidential term, thus making himself a pariah for throwing the election to the Democrats — felt cast aside by history at a time when he still felt destined to accomplish more.

An invitation to give a series of lectures in Argentina the following year led Roosevelt to consider a scientific expedition, underwritten by the US Museum of Natural History, to explore Brazil’s Amazon rain forest and collect interesting specimens of flora and fauna.

Roosevelt was a respected naturalist who had considered a career in the natural sciences before ultimately turning to politics.

But the river excursion that was originally pitched to Roosevelt quickly lost its appeal after he met one of Brazil’s most daring explorers, Col. Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon of the Brazilian Strategic Telegraph Commission, the man responsible for blazing trails across that huge country for telegraph lines to draw the far flung borders of the nation together. Rondon told Roosevelt an intriguing story of a river his men had only partially explored, one they had named Rio da Dúvida — the River of Doubt — because Rondon had no idea where it led. His instincts told him it was a major river that would ultimately empty into the Amazon, but only by exploring it from its source to wherever it ended could Brazil put this river on the map.

This was exactly the sort of challenge that appealed to Roosevelt, and he quickly revised his plans and decided to team up with Rondon for an attempt at putting the Rio de Dúvida in the history books.

Thus was born the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition. To get to the source of the river, their equipment had to be hauled overland 400 miles across the Brazilian highlands on pack animals, after which the expedition would set off in canoes for the run down the river. But for all his back country experience in the military, as a western rancher and on African safari, Theodore Roosevelt had never planned anything as ambitious and dangerous as this. He therefore delegated the expedition logistics to a man who, unfortunately, turned out to have no better experience than Roosevelt did.

And so, from the start, the expedition was in trouble.

Once they began their journey down river there could be no turning back. They would either reach the Amazon or die in the attempt, a possibility that became very real when the River of Doubt turned out to be wilder than any of them had imagined. And, at almost 1,000 miles in length, navigating this uncharted river would end up depleting their rations long before they could reach its end.

The journey down the river took 59 days. Impassible rapids and waterfalls were plentiful, each requiring the men to hack a path through the jungle over which they could drag their supplies and boats to calmer waters. As they fought through the jungle, the thick undergrowth shredded their clothes and slashed their skin. The air was alive with insects, and before long every man was feverish with malaria. It rained constantly. As days turned to weeks and weeks to months with no end in sight, the men began to doubt that they would ever find their way out of the jungle. Food became so scarce that rations were cut below starvation levels. They were stalked by a primitive Indian tribe with a reputation for killing outsiders. One man was lost to the rapids and another was murdered.

Roosevelt later noted that “Under such conditions whatever evil is in men’s natures comes to the front.”

At the same time, in the midst of unimaginable hardship and despair, the men grew closer. Some gave up their meager rations to those who needed them more. They each worked to the point of exhaustion, despite fever and hunger, for the sake of the group. When they could easily have turned on each other to increase the odds of their individual survival, they chose instead to sacrifice for each other. They somehow maintained their commitment to the survival of the group.

Author Candice Millard’s book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey is a riveting story of courage, character and our human need to explore the unknown. I recommend it highly.

Reading it gave me an opportunity to think about what character is and how it is formed.

As I write this, the Colorado Rockies have lost the first two games in the World Series. Much has been made of the Christian faith of some of the Rockies’ players and managers. Some have even claimed that management has a secret plan to build an all-Christian club, something both players and managers deny.

In a very fine October 23 New York Times article by Ben Schpigel, Rockies’ General Manager Ben O’Dowd sets the record straight:

Do we like players with character? There is absolutely no doubt about that. If people want to interpret character as a religious-based issue because it appears many times in the Bible, that’s their decision. I believe that character is an innate part of developing an organization, and to me, it is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time when nobody’s looking. Nothing more complicated than that. You don’t have to be a Christian to make that decision.

O’Dowd defines character as staying committed to your moral code even when the opportunity and desire to cheat is strong. He wants to build a team that plays fair, that respects the game and the fans, a team of men who will be good role models in a sport that has been tainted with scandal. Most of all, he wants men who are committed to what is best for the team first, themselves second.

For the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition, character also meant maintaining a commitment to the best interests of the group when self-serving behavior might arguably have increased their chances of survival. One man began secretly stealing food and was punished when his betrayal was discovered. His lack of character, his lack of commitment to the team, was a notable exception at a time when all were tempted, but most put the needs of the group first, despite their great suffering.

Helen Keller believed that character could only be created in the fires of life’s trials:

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

The Apostle Peter wrote something similar in 1 Peter 1:6-7, where he compares character-building to the process of refining gold, which is made more pure by melting it in a fire that burns away the impurities, leaving behind a metal that is more precious than before.

Character is part of Christianity but not unique to Christianity. For Christians, Jesus’ life serves as an example of the sort of character that we are to live. The Scriptures suggest that a program of personal moral development isn’t enough to create that measure of character within us; what is needed is an inner transformation, a spiritual refining process that God himself accomplishes, with our cooperation.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 5:3ff also suggests that God’s process of character development creates hope in our salvation from life’s terrors, as well as faith in God’s redeeming love for us.

It’s also true that as we live with integrity, as we endure trials and suffering with good character, our commitment to decent behavior, moral uprightness and self-sacrifice will spread to others.

Character is contagious because we don’t live in a moral vacuum. The character of a team, a church or a nation is built by the commitment to character of every individual, beginning with me. Beginning with me.

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  1. Wonderful post! And the book looks great. I listened to Theodore Rex as an audio book (unabridged) and was amazed by his brilliance (he read over 300 books a year while he was president, many of them in their original languages of Greek, German, & French). I’ve been wanting to know what happened after he left office. Now I’ll have a chance…

  2. Terrific post, Charlie. TR was (is) my favorite president, but I really didn’t know about this episode in his life. I’ll definitely have to read the book. And your conclusion is spot-on. We should all pray for a strength of character that is contagious. Beginning with me.

  3. Take a look at Tropa de Elite to see what is discovering character in Brazil.

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