The setting of the movie is the tiny town of Nome, Alaska, which is paralysed by a deadly, fast-spreading disease. Despite a quarantine that was executed early on, the epidemic is expected to wipe out a majority of its inhabitants within days… unless they get speedy access to the appropriate medication (antitoxins) that needed to be transported more than 600 miles, amidst a winter blizzard, which made flights a non-option. Enter Togo, a Siberian husky who led a team of sled dogs and covered hundreds of miles at record-breaking speed in a deadly storm to (obviously) deliver the serum, and save the day.
The premise of this (real life) story from 1925 itself gives one an instant connection to the times we live in, even if it is almost a century removed from the present day. However, watching this Disney movie a few days ago, as I munched microwave-prepared popcorn, it wasn’t the epidemic that inspired me to pick this story as a reference—it was Togo, and what he could teach us, about triumphing in such turbulent times (WARNING: spoilers ahead).
As a pup, Togo defies all attempts by his master, Leonhard Seppala, to give him away for adoption—once even hurling himself at a glass pane to break the window in his adopters’ house to make his escape and find his way back to what he had determined was his home, the place where he was happiest.
With shelter-in-place orders in place the world over, the importance of “home” has increased many-fold, and we need to make it our “happy place”. Even simple things could go a long way—declutter, add bright lights, create a comfy nook for work, put up old pictures on the walls and a few flower stems in an empty wine bottle (there should be no dearth of those). Make it a retreat where you find joy and comfort, a place for which you’d jump through hoops, if not window panes.
On this perilous journey, Seppala had to trust Togo in ways he had never had to before. On treacherous ice, when Seppala was blinded by the night and storm, Togo went with his instincts, ignoring Seppala’s commands—and making split-second decisions that saved them all from plunging to an icy death.
The pandemic has changed the patterns of our life and lack of precedence implies that standard processes of operating often fall short. The overwhelming speed at which things are changing requires that decision making also be rapid and that people and businesses make choices with much less information than they are used to. In addition, many times, you have to be willing to place extreme trust in those on the front-lines to make pivotal decisions—for they can see the unanticipated shifts occur in real time, and prepare to face the storm soon as they see it approaching—before it is too late.
Despite his wife’s chidings that Togo (at 12 years) was too old to lead the journey that the serum run required, Seppala insisted no other hound stood a chance. Under brutally extreme conditions (temperatures of -30F with wind chill estimated at -85F) and knowing full well that what he was asking of Togo was nothing short of superhuman (supercanine?), his strategy was to simply cheer him on with a “good dog” or “well done”. It worked miracles.
“Well done”—a phrase that has the power to create wonders. As the pandemic takes an unprecedented economic toll, it has also caused a surge in anxiety and prolonged distress among many. So take a moment to thank the janitor, to check-in on your solo-quarantined friend, or make a pineapple upside-down cake for an elderly neighbor… to be a cheerleader. Simple utterances and actions can make all the difference to those struggling in these times.
Just to stop the rambunctious eight-month old pup from creating havoc in his pack, one day, an exasperated Seppala put a harness on him. The transformation in Togo was astonishing – he went from being incorrigible to serious in an instant—as if sensing the weight of this responsibility. And when the real challenge arose, he pulled (way beyond) his weight.
This, right here, right now, is in many ways, a chance to prove your mettle. There are things, trials, which you always wondered if you were capable of winning – can you steer your business in such muddy waters and adapt to a new world-order? Can you think beyond your own survival? Can you maintain a sense of humour when confronted with losses? The good news: there is no better time to find out. Focussing on a few goals and what you can control, practising positivity, and centring yourself—might help in rising to what this occasion demands.
Given he was born smaller than average, with underlying health conditions; Seppala had not seen a place for Togo among his sled dogs. On one occasion, early on, Seppala questions his wife, Constance, on her insistence that he give this headstrong mutt a chance.
Seppala: What does he bring to the breed?
Constance: (He brings) the heart of a survivor…
And that small, scrappy dog went on to prove Constance right. So yes, surviving these times has little to do with size, and so much more to do with spirit and mental strength. If you take away one thing from this canine’s tale, let it be this—yes, you can.