Written by Art and Mind, Blogging Fellows, Visual Art

Staying Afloat

One of the first paintings of the Arctic landscape offers lessons in fortitude and resilience.

How would you react if you were on a sinking ship that had run ashore in the remote Arctic? Would you cry and sulk, and curse your bad luck? Or would you focus with steely determination on getting supplies off the ship to lessen the load, and to prevent needed provisions from going down with the ship? In the face of trauma such as this one, the difference boils down to resilience.

William Bradford’s 1875 painting The Voyage of the Polaris raises these questions. The true story of the Polaris, on which the painting is based, involved a crew of explorers who journeyed to the Arctic in 1871. The trip resembled a Hollywood disaster film. The captain, Francis Hall, died mysteriously on the voyage; the ship’s doctor was rumored to have murdered him. As if that weren’t enough, the ship then hit an iceberg. The damaged ship ran aground and capsized, though the entire crew was eventually rescued. As an added cinematic flourish, the scene took place in Thank God Harbor, off the cold, lonely coast of Greenland.

Bradford (1823-1892) was the first American painter to portray the icy landscape of the Arctic. No stranger himself to seafaring, he had an avid interest in polar exploration and actually went on eight Arctic expeditions. On at least one occasion, his ship was stranded in ice. Though he resided in a Massachusetts seaport town, where he had ample access to the nautical world that was his primary artistic interest, Bradford was associated with the Hudson River School, a group of mid-19th-century painters interested in capturing light and atmospheric effects. He was known for his precision and his preoccupation with light, often using darker shades to frame the brighter light in the painting’s interior.

Voyage of the Polaris (1875). William Bradford. Oil on canvas, 43 x 72 in. Collection of the Taubman Museum of Art; Acquired with Funds Provided by the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust. 2002.004

In his painting of the Polaris, the crew is working to lighten the ship’s load in an effort to prevent it from sinking. The crisis depicted is softened by the stunning play of light in the clouds and snow, the pleasing scenery, and the fact that the men seem unhurried, as if they’re doing a regular day’s work. If you weren’t aware of the gut-wrenching backstory of the Polaris, you might assume that this was a portrayal of a usual day unloading supplies on picturesque shorelines. It almost seems as if the artist is masking the desperation of the moment with sparkling snow and the appearance of tranquility. The only clue of underlying mishap might be the perilously angled ship, and perhaps the dogs aggressively fighting over a piece of meat. And yet, instead of concealing the unquestionable anxiety and despair of the moment, the calm demeanor of these men against a serene backdrop might underscore their fortitude and resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to adversity. Like a branch twisting in a storm yet not snapping, it’s the capacity to bend but not break in the face of trauma. It’s about mental flexibility. As psychiatrist Priyvadan Shastri explained in the 2013 Indian Journal of Psychiatry, it’s like immunizing mental health against adversity. Rather than priming the immune system to recognize biological aggressors, resilience is like a personalized vaccine that protects mental health against psychological invaders.

Though it depicts a true incident, Bradford’s painting is a powerful visual metaphor for staying afloat during traumatic events. This image seems to resonate with the uncertainty of being stuck between the harrowing freezing water and the possibility of rescue and recovery on the shore. Since we just passed the one-year milestone of the pandemic, we may wonder: Can we learn to tolerate uncertainty? Given our own current precarious position, which in some ways mirrors that of the Polaris crew, how can we foster resilience?

Dr. Martin Seligman of the Positive Psychology Group at the University of Pennsylvania has developed a method of building resilience and well-being. He devised an intriguing roadmap for flourishing and well-being in times of stress. Rather than focusing just on relief of suffering, this method sets a goal of finding a way to thrive. The roadmap is called PERMA, an acronym coincidentally calling to mind the permafrost landscape in Bradford’s work.

Each letter of the acronym stands for pillars of well-being: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. PERMA suggests that positive emotion can be amplified by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness for the past, mindfulness and physical pleasure in the current moment, and nourishing hope and optimism for the future. Engagement is about getting into the “zone,” becoming lost in an activity for the enjoyment of it rather than focusing on the outcome. Relationships give meaning and purpose to life, provide support, and invite kindness. Meaning is derived from serving something larger than oneself, such as religion, family, politics, or social causes. In keeping with the metaphor of nautical calamity, child psychiatrist Dr. Alan Schlecter expands on PERMA in a 2020 NYU Langone publication: “Meaning acts as a life-jacket during difficult moments–even pandemics. Caring for the people around us, participating in the activities that matter most, can keep a person afloat.” Accomplishment refers to mastering simple everyday tasks rather than large ones.

Though it would seem nearly impossible to master these building blocks when you’re stuck on an isolated, frozen landmass, or when struggling with the fallout from a pandemic, even small moments, which Schlecter calls “micromoments of well-being,” could help bolster resilience. Perhaps when stranded in the Arctic, spending a few minutes feeling the warmth of the fire or thinking about family are ways of keeping hope alive. Mindfully appreciating a sunny window during pandemic lockdown may be enough to set the stage for resilience.

So would you panic or remain calm if you were marooned near Greenland within sight of your sinking ship? You obviously wouldn’t pull out your cheat sheet on the PERMA pillars of well-being. Coping depends on personality, heredity, the lessons learned from past adversity, and perhaps consciously nourishing resilience. Most of us are inadvertently strengthening our coping mechanisms through this pandemic, potentially making ourselves more resilient in the face of future stress. That may be meager consolation right now. And yet, we can conjure hopeful positive emotions: Just as the crew of the ill-fated Polaris may have sensed, rescue is likely on the horizon.

Art and Mind is a series of essays about the intersection of art and psychiatry.

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