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Thursday, July 2, 2009 07:30 pm

What I learned when I failed

The following is from a speech given by Andy Van Meter at the Eagle Scout Recognition Banquet held at the State Capitol March 2.

My topic is failure. I could talk to you about the failure of others. Instead, I would like to talk to you about my own failure, as experienced in the Boy Scouts, in the Order of the Arrow.

The Order of the Arrow is a special honor society focused on leadership and dedicated to service. It is an honor society patterned after the noblest traditions of the American Indian. You must be nominated for the Order of the Arrow by the members of your troop, but you can only earn membership by demonstrating self-reliance through a night of camping, like the Indians, with no equipment, followed by a day of community service in total silence while fasting and reflecting on the honor.

For those who meet the test of this ordeal, there is a final, moving ceremony at sunset. The existing members, dressed as Indians, their faces lit by a magnificent campfire, instruct their new brothers into the ways of The Order. It is a most beautiful and meaningful ceremony.

At one such induction ceremony I was selected to serve as the chief. My fellow members and I painted our faces and pulled on authentic buckskin breaches. As the chief, I donned a magnificent eagle-feather headdress.

As the chief, the major role in the induction ceremony fell to me. The ceremony is carefully prescribed, each sentence and story carefully selected and shared with each new group of candidates. At its conclusion, the chief must snuff out 10 candles explaining, as he does, the significance of each one. I snuffed out and explained the first candle with great seriousness. I repeated this performance on the second candle with all of the gravitas a 14-year-old boy could muster.

Then I arrived at the third candle. I looked meaningfully at that flickering flame, but I could not, for the life of me, remember what the devil it stood for. I hesitated for a moment and decided “truth” might be the next symbol. So I disquisitioned on the virtue of truth.

Next I came to the fourth candle, which suddenly seemed to me as meaningless as the one before. I paused, then looked heavenward to the Great Maker and He, or a merciful God, inspired the idea that “justice” should be on the list. To be honest, my talk on justice sounded an awful lot like my speech on truth.

Now there was that fifth candle to tackle. I looked at it blankly and then solemnly suggested ”Motherhood.” All true Indians would honor their mothers.

As I faced the sixth candle I searched the painted faces of my fellow Indians conducting the induction ceremony. They responded with looks of utter confusion, not certain what ceremony I was conducting and dreading where I was going. But looking at them gave me another idea. . . . ”Brotherhood,” I intoned seriously and proceeded to describe its meaning.

I managed to get by the seventh and eighth candles by reviewing the first two. But by the ninth candle even the candidates, despite a night without sleep and a day without food, realized that I was hopelessly lost. Their starving condition, however, suggested a thought that seemed meaningful to me at the time. ”Nourishment,” I offered. I cannot recall what virtue I ascribed to nourishment.

Finally, at long last, I reached the 10th candle. I had exhausted every virtue that naturally came to mind. I had nowhere to turn, no place to go physically or mentally. But the ordeal would not end until I had snuffed out that brightly burning candle. In desperation I turned to the one subject always current in a 14-year-old boy’s mind. ”Girls. May we cherish their beauty,” I blurted, as the entire assemblage dissolved into laughter so raucous it rings in my ears to this day.

It was a moment of abject failure.

The candidates survived. All of them continued in scouting and went on to productive careers. I was never asked to conduct another induction ceremony, and as far as I know, The Order never adopted Truth, Justice, Motherhood, Brotherhood, Nourishment and Girls as foundation principles.

I recovered, slowly. And I suppose I learned that failure, even total failure, is a part of life. I went on to become an Eagle Scout, attend university, write a book, get a law degree, start a business, and hold the trust of the voters in our community. Surviving that failure and succeeding as an Eagle Scout has sustained me in the face of many, many failures that have come since. Failures pass. Achievements last.

Andy Van Meter is chairman of the Sangamon County Board.

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