Mandy Baker Johnson

Living without Shadows

Growing Pains

Did you see Penguins – Spy in the Huddle on BBC1 recently?  For three consecutive Monday evenings, I was mesmerised by these entertaining creatures.  The documentary put spy cameras disguised as penguins into the middle of three colonies:  stately emporer penguins in Antarctica, funny rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands, and shy humboldt penguins in Peru.  I have to admit to a bias towards emporer penguins.

Both mum and dad are committed to hatching their precious chick.  Mum must pass the egg to dad before she can return to the sea to feed.  The parents practice this tricky maneouvre a few times so that the egg is not exposed to the freezing cold air for too long.  (It’s easy to tell the old hands from the new parents at this stage, and my heart was in my mouth while I watched.)  With egg safely tucked in dad’s pouch, it’s time for mum to return to the sea so she can feast on fish.  The dads stay behind, huddling together for warmth against the bitter Antarctic winds.  I mused on the fact that we can learn a lot from the animal kingdom at times.  No chance among penguins of the male getting the female pregnant and then disappearing without any sign of commitment….

Dad is in charge of hatching the chick, which he feeds from his own meagre resources.  He is literally starving by the time mum returns, looking plump and well-fed.  For all that he is desperate to get to the sea and a good feed himself, he is most reluctant to leave his chick.  In some cases, mum had to resort to pecking him to force him to go.  Such is the emporer dad’s commitment.  There I go again with that word ‘commitment’!

Mum cares for the chick, feeding it on regurgitated fish (yuck!) and endeavouring to shelter it from the ferocious storms for the next few weeks until dad returns from the sea to share the task of bringing up their little one.

The chicks in the colony become more and more independent as they grow bigger and stronger, until one day the majority of the parents leave for the sea for the last time.  After a while the chicks sense the call of the sea themselves, and start the long journey over the ice.

In the process, the chicks find areas where the ice has melted into piles of slush.  They have never before encountered a non-solid surface and falling into the icy water takes them by surprise.  They flap in a flustered sort of way, trying to get back onto solid snow.  It’s a shock to them, but it’s a good thing because it teaches them to swim so that when they finally reach the sea itself, they can confidently throw themselves into it.

Life is a bit like that.  When things are going well, we can feel all cosy and settled.  But then something happens that takes us by surprise, stretching us.  It can feel like we’ve just fallen into icy water sometimes and it’s not pleasant.  Like when Adrian was made redundant a few years ago.  I remember that cold feeling gripping my stomach as we sat in the lounge in complete silence, just looking at each other.  Or like when we were informed we could never – humanly-speaking – have children of our own, the day after my dad had died.  Or when my neighbour drives me mad with her loud television!  But these are vital growing times in our lives.   Without the tough episodes, we would end up pretty spineless and pathetic.  Redundancy taught us more than we’d ever known before of trusting God, comprehending a little more of His sovereignty, and experiencing His provision.  Losing my dad and being unable to have children has enabled me to experience at a deeper level God’s emotional healing and comfort – and now I can comfort others in the same position, understanding what they’re going through because I’ve been there.  And I’m painfully learning some patience through the trial of the television….

With God’s help, it’s possible to accept the trials (even though we don’t enjoy them at the time because they’re painful and hard) and to grow through the experience.  God is able to turn our sorrow into joy (Isaiah 61, Psalm 126, James 1, 2 Corinthians 1).



  1. A lovely post. I’m sure many people saw and loved the programmes on the emperor penguins. It’s fascinating when the behaviour and experience of wildlife can be understood metaphorically, to give us new insights into our own lives. You do this so well, in a way I can relate to. Thank you for your encouragement!

    • Mandy

      29/03/2013 at 4:04 pm

      Thank you so much (again!) for your encouragement Sheila. It means a lot to know that you find these kinds of posts helpful. You’re a great Barnabas! (Acts 4:36)

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