Puranjot Kaur swims in front of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Credit: Courtesy of Edna Martin

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Puranjot Kaur swam nearly 17 miles in the cold waters off of Mount Desert Island last Friday and still, somehow, that technically counts as a failure.

Kaur had the audacity to attempt something that no one had ever done before — a swim around the entire 44 miles of the island — and she came up short. The doctor monitoring her condition throughout the swim determined that she was hypothermic and should stop the swim.

“Kaur said that as she rounded Otter Point, a strong headwind kicked up, and she began swimming directly into the current,” read the BDN’s report on the 40-year-old Bar Harbor resident’s attempt to make history. “The rough seas made her nauseous, and caused her to take on some salt water, making it difficult to hold down nutrition. She began to feel weak, and with less vigorous movement, her body became hypothermic.”

Sounds a bit like 2020, doesn’t it?

For many people, for many different reasons, this has been a year of strong headwinds, taking on water, unrealized plans and, yes, failure.

In these pages, we frequently criticize institutional failures, policy failures or failures in leadership. And we celebrate personal achievements, milestones and accolades. But we don’t often recognize the necessity of personal failures — the need for people to push the limits of what is possible for them and for society, and the guarantee that many if not most of those efforts will fall short.

It’s no great leap to say that failure is a common and critical part of growth. During a pandemic rife with anxiety, feelings of failure and very real failures, however, it can do us all some good to remember that fact.

In 1966, Sen. Robert Kennedy delivered a speech to the National Union of South African Students, and stressed that “only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.”

Kaur may not have made it all the way around Mount Desert Island, but she did make it 5 miles farther than she’d ever swam before. And distance aside, her effort raised more than $29,000 for the local food insecurity organization she and her husband founded — a significant victory on its own.

“In this time where so much feels like it’s going wrong in the world, this is something that feels like people can get excited about and rally around,” Kaur told the BDN. “That feels very, very cool.”

As the rest of us set out to meet our own goals, Kaur’s description of the meditative, calming mindset she brings to open water swimming could prove instructive here on dry land.

“I think a lot of athletes get into this zone where you’re in this interesting mental battle with yourself,” Kaur said. “You just have to get out of your own way, and focus on your breathing and on the moment.”

That’s good advice, even for us non-athletes, as we navigate the sometimes rough and cold waters around our own islands.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...