Fog on the English Channel: Victory, defeat, and the limits of vantage point

1455848_723840074440_3398969491830786328_nI’m going to tell you a story that’s almost certainly untrue.

I like to joke that I read history in university because I was trying to make sure I’d grow up to be fully unemployable. But in reality, I believe that history matters. I believe that serious, methodological research into our collective past serves a crucial function in the shaping of our future.

As a consequence, I have a deep, abiding distaste for pseudo-history, for those widely-circulated pop-cultural myths that endure absent of evidence or legitimate scholarship. But right now, in the service of inspiration (and frankly, because I doubt that the readership of a running blog is especially concerned with the particulars of the Battle of Trafalgar) I am going to tell you a story that’s almost certainly untrue.

Let’s rewind about two hundred years, to the height of the Napoleonic Wars: Britain and France are at war. The spectre of a French invasion onto English soil, and a subsequent conquest of Britain, looms with a foreboding urgency.

The Battle of Trafalgar was the decisive exchange of this conflict – the fate of England hung precariously on the success of British Admiral Nelson’s fleet as they faced down Napoleon’s naval forces in the waters of the Atlantic, just off the coast of south-western Spain. And at home, a tense and fearful England waited to for the news, which came across the foggy English Channel one morning, spelled out by naval signal flags:

NELSON DEFEATED

Across the island, panic and despair spread like a menacing wave. The French invasion was imminent. The star of the British Empire was all but poised to fall.

But then something happened – something at once very ordinary, and yet on this particular day, completely extraordinary: the fog on the English Channel lifted. The simple, two-word message that had appeared to spell England’s doom revealed itself in full:

NELSON DEFEATED NAPOLEON

This story was told to me a long time ago, by someone far more concerned with the romance and inspiration it held than with the factual accuracy of the tale itself. It’s a tidy metaphor, isn’t it? Altogether too tidy for the often ragged edges of history.

The truth is, there’s likely very little truth to this story. But just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. There’s a reason the story stuck with me all these years, and a reason I’m called back to it now.

I’ve written a lot on the theme of resilience – on how setbacks and difficulty can help to shape us into the people we need to become. I’ve explored this theme over and over because being an athlete, ultimately, isn’t about being able to work – it’s about being able to fail.

Failure is valuable tool, calling attention to the myriad weak points or blind spots we all carry. But there’s another side to failure that I haven’t explored quite so thoroughly; that is, sometimes what looks like failure simply isn’t.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can attest to the truth in this. The greatest race of my life was the direct result of one of my most devastating personal failures. That’s a very different thing than simply finding motivation or inspiration in the experience of failure. It isn’t that I “made the best of it” – the failure itself was the mechanism.

This spring, my training has been fraught with tiny disappointments – the kind of small struggles that, one by one, don’t feel like very much. But taken all together, the discouragement is palpable.

But before I abandon myself to despair or self-pity, I consider for a moment the limits of vantage point. If I can’t find the lesson in my failures, perhaps I’m reading them wrong. I’m reading them through the fog. I might have the message right, sure. Then again, I might have it wrong.

So I wait, head up, for a change in the winds, for the fog on the English Channel to clear.

Chase big dreams.

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