In River of the Gods, Candice Millard tells the story of two British explorers, Richard Burton and John Speke, who set out to find the head of the Nile River. Men had tried to discover its source since the times of the Pharaohs and Roman Empire. It would seem simple enough – simply get in a boat and travel until you get to the end, but every attempt failed because you get to a large swamp that was practically impossible to navigate. In the 19th Century a missionary claimed there was a giant lake which he suspected to be the head of the Nile. Burton was commissioned to find out and he hired Speke to join the expedition. A decision he would regret for the rest of his life.
One night, their troop was surprised by an attack by a local tribe, and Burton told Speke not to retreat into the tent but go forth and fight. Speke assumed that he was being called a coward. That started his bitter feelings toward Burton, holding a grudge against him for the rest of his life. That misunderstanding in the heat of a fight led to these men becoming bitter enemies, with Speke doing all he could to ruin the career and reputation of Burton. Though failing to find the head of the Nile, Speke told their sponsors that he was certain he found the lake and would go back and find it, taking all the credit and glory for himself. He went back to Africa, and said he saw the source, but his evidence was lackluster, causing some to doubt if he succeeded. Burton and Speke were set to engage in a public debate on the matter when, the day before the event, Speke was killed in a hunting accident.
It was a remarkable story. These two men risked life and limb to confirm and map the head of the Nile, an impressive feat. These men sacrificed their health (both men never fully recovered physically) fortune, and for what? Certainly, glory at the time, but was it worth it? At the time, I’m sure they believed it was, but looking back on it now, it seems their bitter feud was so foolish. They spoiled what little of the precious time on Earth they had.
Bitterness is a sinful root that will ruin your life. It starts with anger over an actual (or perceived) sin against you. Then, if that anger isn’t dealt with, it spoils into bitterness, which stokes the fire of the injustice and won’t allow you to attempt to set things right, work towards forgiveness and reconciliation, or to move on. You’ve already been sinned against, and that hurts. Don’t hurt yourself further by living the rest of your days in bitterness. You can’t help if someone hurts you, but you can control how you deal with it. Burton and Speke never thought of Africa and what they accomplished without becoming furious thinking of the other. A sad legacy indeed.
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