An Undefeatable Spirit

Inevitably on an Expeditionary or Outward Bound trip, we will experience rain – and not the short, summer shower complete with a rainbow, a splash in a puddle for fun, and a skip home to a warm change of clothes and a movie. When all of your life’s necessities are on your back and liable to getting wet, rain can be a quite miserable… and formative experience.

As a guide on these trips, we spend most of our time hoping for sunny skies also. We like rain as little as our students do. But here’s the thing: rain presents a fantastic opportunity for growth. If we can shift our mindsets to reflect this fact, we can approach the prospect of rain very differently, and (hopefully) change the perspective of our entire group.

What kind of opportunity does rain present? I’m glad you ask(!) because it gets us back to the series on Hahn’s five educational ideals. First, let us return to Hahn’s famous quote:

I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion…

I think rain presents the opportunity to develop Hahn’s ‘undefeatable spirit’. Unlike compassion or tenacity in pursuit, both of which required nuanced explorations of hidden meanings, an undefeatable spirit is a pretty straightforward concept. Simply go forth towards your goals with vigor and zest, and don’t let obstacles or even failures put a damper on your positivity and energy and you’ve done it! The problem is, it’s hard to not let failures slow our drive, or to question when it’s time to throw in the towel and move on to another pursuit.

“Among the unusual assumptions underlying all forms of instruction at Salem was Hahn’s conviction that students should experience failure as well as success.” wrote Educational Historian Thomas James, “They should learn to overcome negative inclinations within themselves and prevail against all adversity.” What irony! Basically, Hahn was asserting a basic human truth: that in order to get good at something, you should practice it. Yet, when it comes to failure at least, we (as a society) would really prefer not to practice it (and for some reason are surprised when we grow up not facing setbacks elegantly)!

Unfortunately, there is a social stigma against ‘failing’ an academic assignment, or worse yet, a full course or year. So let’s get back to the practice field of an expeditionary trip: in order to capitalize on the beautiful opportunity that rain presents to train the Undefeatable Spirit, I like to prepare my students early on. I tell or read some version of the allegory I Can Sleep Through A Storm as the reading during closing circle on the second or third night of our 21-day trip… on a shorter trip it could be integrated into a lunch circle. If you haven’t ever heard or read it, you should – it’s quick – but essentially the point is that the farmer hires a man who pays attention to the small details of his life and work so thoroughly that he doesn’t need to wake up in the middle of the night when a surprise storm arrives in order to ‘button down all the hatches,’ if you will.

Then, when the first rain of the trip comes pitter-pattering on the tent walls all night, I sleep. The conceptual component of the lesson has been covered, so the only thing that me getting up and making sure everyone’s tent is set-up to not leak and withstand gale-force winds will do is, sadly, confirm that someone will always be there to help you not experience a setback. Thus, I let the little farmers experience their own success or failure, and sleep.

In the morning, I like to ask everyone if they were able to sleep through a storm. Then, the reading at opening circle is a bit of a story as well. First, I read a quote from Hahn, and then jump straight into the story that follows:

It is possible to wait on a child’s inclinations and gifts to arrange carefully for an unbroken series of successes. You may make him happy in this way – I do doubt it – but you certainly disqualify him for the battle of life.

One of my best friends from college, Craig, told me an anecdote recently about rain. Craig threw javelin in college – when he started, he actually wasn’t that good. But he worked his butt off and ended up winning the NCAA National Championship, and decided to try to make it to the Olympics after we graduated. He threw for the US in the London Olympics in 2012 and was first among Americans, but 23rd in the world. So of course, he decided to come back 4 years later, but just before the Olympics a shoulder injury forced him into retirement. So, he decided to coach. He returned to our Alma Mater and during his first year of coaching, he sent me a video of him giving a pre-meet speech. The forecast for the day was gloomy: it was already raining steadily and was predicted to get worse. His athletes were bumming. In the video, he tells them with no babying spirit, “Now you have the opportunity to be resilient. If I had a meet where it mattered where I placed, I hoped for rain! If it’s going to pour, bring it on – because everybody else is going to be worried about it, and I’m going to be excited about the fact that everybody else is worried about it! And I’m going to beat you!”

Well, we aren’t competing against anybody but ourselves today. That’s not really what backpacking is about. But what it is about, is providing us with a training ground. Today, we have the opportunity to practice resilience. The chance to practice holding our spirits high and enjoying whatever opportunities for spiritual growth the world throws at us. The chance for us to make sure that we, are not disqualified from the battle of life.

… and then, we go forth a-hop-skippin’ into our day.

What’s your story that will inspire your kids to develop an undefeatable spirit? And when and where do you provide the opportunities to practice overcoming setbacks and the negative inclinations of the mind? If you have a trip coming up and don’t have your own story developed yet, use Craig’s story until you develop your own – our youth need it.

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