History recounts the story of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador who discovered Mexico and eventually defeated the Aztecs. In the year 1519, Cortés made voyage to the New World with 600 men and a vision for victory. When his men finally all made it ashore, Cortés sent one of his ships back to Spain and burned the others. His message was clear – there was no going back. There was no retreating to the safety of the ships. And in the event his soldiers might encounter something so challenging they wanted to turn back, there would be nothing to turn back to. The only way was ahead, not behind.
I believe we all face “burn the ships” moments in our lives. I’m not talking about conquering another civilization, but rather conquering the thoughts we hold about who we are. We all know people who are stuck in the past. Most of us can remember the one guy who still showed up to every high school party even though he was 22 years old. He even wore his old letter jacket! He would tell the same stories about the same great plays and all of us would nod our heads as if we had never heard them before. There are times in your life when you’re that guy. You’re stuck in the past. Your mindset about who you are and what you’re capable of needs to change. It’s time to burn the ships.
Living into a new vision of yourself doesn’t mean forgetting the past. For the soldiers under Cortés, watching the ships burn didn’t mean they forgot how they got there. When you realize it’s time to let go of your pride or your ego or your fear or your anger, don’t expect all memories associated with that way of thinking to vacate your head. You’ll never forget who you were, but one day you’ll realize that’s no longer who you are. Here are two practical things you can do when life presents you with a “burn the ships” opportunity.
The first is retrace your steps. Long before a marriage ends in divorce or someone feels handcuffed to their six-figure salary or their six-figure debt, there are steps people take toward these outcomes. You’ve taken steps too. In fact, it’s the culmination of these steps that led you to the point you’re at right now. Sure, we can try to blame things like fate or luck or karma, but in reality, it’s about the choices we make every day. When you begin to understand how you got to where you are, you can decide to head in a new direction. Burning the ships means owning the past and no longer letting it own you.
The second is find people who reflect the qualities you desire and spend time with them. If you want to be a more consistent, fitter athlete, join a community of them. Because they don’t care about your excuses. Most of them once believed that they couldn’t or wouldn’t too. But over time, they burned the ships loaded with their excuses which means yours won’t have any effect on them. However, their commitment to fitness and diligence in training will have a HUGE impact on you. The same is true in life. If you want to stop feeling like a victim of the circumstances of your life, quit hanging around with people who remind you what a victim you are. Sure, it may feel good for them to console you and reassure you, but how’s that really working out for you? My perspective on life continues to expand as I surround myself with people who don’t live by the same constraints I do. Community breeds confidence and this new confidence will be more than sufficient to burn your ships.
For too long, I struggled with letting the ships control my life versus trying to control them myself. That’s a losing battle. The wins fuel your pride and the losses make you feel powerless. In Spiritual Fitness, we acknowledge that God is the only One with the power to burn our ships. It’s not about declaring yourself a failure and waving the white flag, it’s about trusting in something greater than you. No doubt you’ve put your trust in many things over the course of your life. And given enough time, all of them have or will fail you. But not God. God’s vision for your life is restoration. Let Him burn your ships as you trust Him for all your future holds.