How Acknowledging Your Failures is Vital to Continued Transformation
I've always wanted to travel to Antarctica. I think it has something to do with the loneliness and the remote isolation of the place. I reconnected last year with an old friend from my high school days who actually had spent some time there this past year. From what I could gather from his Facebook posts, it's not a very inviting place to visit. Still, I'm intrigued by the possibility of one day traveling to the true "down under." (Not to worry, Rob, Australia still is on my bucket list, and I'll probably end up there far sooner than Antarctica.)
Deception Island is a small, volcanic archipelago off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It gets its name from the American seal hunter Nathaniel Palmer. Evidently, the little frozen island was named "Deception" because it conceals a highly-protected harbor hidden behind its peaks visible from the outside. If you want to look at some pretty pictures (albeit austere) of the island, Slate Magazine did a fun write up about it at this link here.
The island is an active volcano—a detail worth noting. Reportedly, in 1969 it decided to erupt, which is really cool to everyone interested in obscure Antarctic islands or active volcanos, but not so much for the British scientists and whalers residing on the island's base at the time. Because of all that fiery, bubbling awesomeness they had to abandon the base after Mother Nature decided she didn't want any more tea and crumpets littering the shores on her special horseshoe of land.
But this blog post isn't about an Antarctic island.
It's about how people who want to better themselves and find change and transformation need to come to terms with just how fucking hard it is . . . and how real, authentic change only transpires when we realize that the failures we experience aren't setbacks, but new opportunities for continued growth.
This past week, I visited Deception Island. Not the above-referenced Antarctic one, but the more allegorical one.
Like Deception Island in Antarctica, it looked safe and secure from the storms brewing in the bigger ocean outside the harbor.
Like the real one, the allegorical one eventually ended up into a boiling, erupting mess.
However, unlike the real island, I had deceived myself.
I had recently attended a mental health conference in Yankton, South Dakota. The symposium went swimmingly well and I wrote recently about some of my insights I gained.
The plan after that was to meet my parents and my two boys in Sioux Falls the next day so we could all travel together to a family wedding in Colorado.
I looked at our travel plan and "the Island" of spending time with my aging folks seemed like a good idea. I love them very much, and I don't know how much more time I will have together with them. The week away was also my sole vacation I was planning for this summer. I looked forward to escaping away from the stress and demands the thirteen or so irons I have in the fire as a freelance writer.
The Island looked calm. A refuge from stormy seas.
Our first stop was to visit the Black Hills where my father grew up. My brother would shoot a short film about his time growing up there and my uncle would add to the narrative with his memories there too.
That went really well. So far so good, I thought. The Island seemed everything I thought it would be: peaceful, serene, a nice time—quality time—I could spend with my family.
Then, everything got crazy. Or, I should restate: I got crazy.
I fought with my dad and harbored resentment about him driving the car. I thought I had come with to drive for them! I felt a possible tremor beneath the formerly stable ground of my little Island.
Then we went to visit some cousins in Wyoming and more drama ensued. The water in the middle of the harbor started to bubble. Then it boiled. I yelled (screamed, really) at my parents that I didn't want to be there. I threatened to go home. The drama infected my brain and stimulated me. But I still thought I was in control.
We traveled to Nederland, Colorado. We got to the wedding. My wife, Carol, joined us. The Island showed signs of cooling I thought. But, no. It was only beginning to really erupt.
We went to the wedding. It was a lovely outdoor affair. But then my brother said something that hurt my feelings. It was really very minor, but I blew it out of proportion. Weddings are normally highly emotional times anyway—believe me, I know . . . I used to be a pastor who presided at about a hundred of them—and my emotions were on fire.
After the ceremony, the reception was in full swing—and awash with liquor and laughter. The food was late. I was hungry. I was triggered. The lava boiled and I burned inside. I decided it wasn't a good place for me to be (a point that was probably true; I don't regret the decision to remove myself). I walked home nearly two miles to the AirBnB we had reserved for our family.
Soon after, my father returned. Nothing seemed to be amiss. I had cleaned the cabin and got our family's bags ready to depart back to Saint Paul, Minnesota the next day.
Then my mom and wife came home. And I complained. I ranted. I raved. In defense of my mother, my dad reacted back.
It was a full-blown eruption. People on both sides said things they didn't mean. My little Island-of-Family-Bonding had turned into an exploding volcano of pain, regret, failure and misery. Deception Island.
I traveled home the next day with my aunt and my son. Now I'm writing about it.
The bantering I sometimes do on this website I do not intend to be an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Nor do I intend on forcing you—my devoted readers—in reliving my family bullshit.
I write about these things, because I know I can't be the only one living through them.
I see Deception Island as a destination many people elect to travel to. Writing about my failure I simply see as a new opportunity to grow.
If I've learned anything in sharing others' stories of change and transformation, I've witnessed how change never ends.
It's a process. It's not something you do, then you go on without ever having to deal with other changes you need to make to become an authentic human being. Progress, not perfection. Still, it's disappointing when you make mistakes. You want to be better. You want to love and be loved. You don't want to go back to the awful erupting mess you had in your past.
I cannot change the drama I vomited out as an erupting, hateful mess in Colorado with my family.
But I can acknowledge the failure as a new opportunity to change.
Deception Island only becomes a valuable destination when you realize that you own your mistakes and you have the ability to rectify them.
I don't regret going to Colorado for a wedding with my family. I do regret the sixteen-year-old, entitled, resentful brat I lapsed into when I got there.
Your own Deception Island will be your own. You know it when you see it. All you need to do is look at the eruption that inevitably follows once you get there!
The way I see it, we can wallow in our misery that we chose to go to that island, or we can see the excursion there for what it really is: an opportunity. And a new one, at that.
Making blunders is part of being human. Instead of searching for self-justification in the errors, try owning them.
It's easy to find self-justifying reasons why we acted the way we did. Well, it's easy for me, anyway—I'm an addict in recovery, and this behavior is just par for the course.
It's much harder to own your failures and say, "Yes. I can do better."
I think what hinders me from taking the steps I need to change a reactive temper is that I'm afraid. I'm afraid that I won't receive forgiveness—that I'll never be good enough.
It's certainly a possibility that you won't get the forgiveness you're seeking. With me, I know my parents do love me, and forgive me. They simply want to see my behavior change. It's bizarre how this fear persists though. It's oddly this fear that lulls me into complacency. I say to myself, "Oh well. That happened. I won't let it happen again." That affirmation, though, isn't owning your mistakes.
Because, soon after, I take another journey to Deception Island. The eruption casts a searing-hot cloud of drama and disappointment again.
When you own your mistakes you know that they are yours. Period. Then, you can change them. In fact, mistakes are an indispensable tool to learning. So, try celebrating them by owning them!
The way to break the cycle—to go to a real "peaceful island"—is to acknowledge your failures, prepare for action, and take action.
Scott Berkun has a blog I love to read, mostly because the guy writes really well and every post I've seen happens to give me new information I find valuable. In this post here he writes:
I think this sums it up nicely for me. I bet it does for you, too. You see, mistakes/failures/errors/blunders are a good thing! We have to make them if we want to change. We do not have to fear them or continually try to avoid them.
My journey to Deception Island wasn't such a bad journey. I regret hurting my family. I regret the things I said (yelled). I do not regret the new opportunities it gave me to become a better person.
That's a gift for me, and it is for you too. (And I don't think the penguins in the photo above would disagree!)