The Martian

My brother was kind enough to gift me The Martian audio book for my drive across the country. As I listen to it I keep thinking about a recurring point I’m hearing throughout the narrative – a motif about how Mark Watney (the protagonist) approaches seemingly impossible challenges.

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

Often I feel this way, like everything is lined up against me or against “us” and there’s such an incredibly small chance of success that we’re doomed from the onset. Mark, however, counters with a bold stance:

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

At work recently I’ve been sharing my own quote: “we are creators; we are not powerless;” but The Martian does a better job fleshing out what that means. Having seemingly-unsolvable challenges can be paralyzing, but it’s quintessentially human to face our limits and push our boundaries. When I die I don’t want people to remember me as one who “accepted it [and gave up]” but rather as one who “got to work” when the outcome seemed futile.

Impossible problems aren’t impossible; they are just…really hard. Frustratingly big problems usually also require a shift in momentum – things continue to “go south” even after we get ourselves in gear. This is derailing for me particularly because I want so badly to see that my hard work pays off and it can be demotivating to feel like my efforts were made in vain.

Sigh…okay. I’ve had my tantrum and now
I have to figure out how to stay alive.

But we just have to celebrate our little wins and stay the course. No great accomplishment comes without its own story of struggle and perseverance leading up to the victory.

For me this means pressing hard towards the goal even when it feels helpless. It means choosing an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of empowerment, of not getting distracted by all of the things that remain unknown or daunting and instead focusing on what we can do and solve today. I cannot change the fact that the journey is hard, but I can orient my steps towards that path or away from it.

The final victory, the full reconciliation, redemption, and restoration doesn’t come about because we took a thousand-foot impossible leap-of-faith but rather because we took a thousand small determined steps towards the goal often even after stumbling or going astray.

I’m working on my attitude when I get overwhelmed by big problems like what we read about in The Martian. I’m not facing death, but I don’t see any easy or quick solutions to the roadblocks on my journey. Throw a fit, but get up and get working; remember that the challenge is big and the path to victory is lined by stunning losses; don’t let the impossibility of the remaining work prevent you from accomplishing the success of today.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.
Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.


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