Provision #534: Sympathetic Reactions

Laser Provision

On Thursday, I shared with a friend that I would be running the Baltimore Marathon on Saturday as the 4:45 pace-team leader. I told her I was a little worried about my conditioning. She told me to relax, trust my body, and then write a great Provision afterwards. Well, things took a surprising twist. I did not run the marathon at all, due to a series of sympathetic reactions. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not those surprises led to a great Provision. Read on, to see for yourself.

LifeTrek Provision

Yesterday was the seventh running of the Baltimore marathon. By 7:30 PM on Friday evening, everything was set for me to spearhead another successful running of the 4:45 pace team. I had done my training and calibrated my new GPS-based pacing system. The weather forecast could not have been more ideal: 45 degrees and clear at the start of the race. The pacer dinner, the night before, had brought the pace teams together for inspiration and final instructions. I even had a chance to give a short speech on the importance of consistent pacing, challenging everyone to play the perfect pacer game.

That’s when the phone rang: it was my wife telling me that my son was having chest pains. The concern was that his lung might be collapsing for the second time in less than two years, an eventuality that could lead to major surgery. We shared a moment of sadness together. This guy has had more than his share of health problems and close calls. He really didn’t need a recurrence.

I called my daughter-in-law and her voice was shaking. She was scared. I could hear it in her voice and sympathy immediately kicked in. Talk about “emotional contagion.” Like a spooked bird taking off and alighting an entire flock, I, too, became afraid. I could feel it in my bones.

That’s when I was faced with a hard decision. I had an entire pace team counting on me to lead them to a successful finish in the morning, but I had a son on the way to an emergency room 150 miles away. I am not one disappoint, but in this case, I was going to disappoint someone and I had to make a choice.

Ironically, the theme for this year’s pace teams, emblazoned across the back of our take-home shirts, was taken from the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Kahn, in 1982. At the end of the movie, Spock sacrifices his life to save the ship from a core-reactor explosion. In his dying exchange with Admiral James T. Kirk, referring back to an earlier conversation, the dialogue goes:

Spock: Ship… out of danger?
Kirk: Yes.
Spock: Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…
Kirk: …the needs of the few.
Spock: …Or the one.
Kirk: Spock…
Spock: I have been and always shall be your friend. … Live long and prosper.

That was the message emblazoned on the back of our shirts by our faithful and committed pace-team organizers: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” As pace-team leaders, this race was not about our agenda, but about the needs of the people who sign up to run with us. Getting them through to the finish, on pace, took priority. I had dedicated myself to that cause for the better part of the past year, and now I had to choose between the needs of the many (the pace team) and the needs of the one (my son).

It was a choice I never expected to face. But then neither did Admiral Kirk. Two years later, in the third Star Trek movie, The Search for Spock, Admiral Kirk and his officer crew chose to disobey orders in order to risk their lives and careers to see if the Genesis Project had indeed restored Spock to life. It had, but they had to take him home to restore his soul. At the moment of Spock’s awakening, the dialogue reversed that logic as follows:

Spock: My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.
Spock: [pacing] I have been and ever shall be your friend.
Kirk: Yes. Yes, Spock.
Spock: Ship, out of danger?
Kirk: You saved the ship. You saved us all. Don’t you remember?
Spock: Jim. Your name is Jim.
Kirk: Yes.

I chose the needs of the one. I called the pace-team organizers, told them what was happening, and informed them of my decision. They agreed that I should go to be with my son, assuring me that they would take care of things in Baltimore. That’s why it’s a pace team, rather than a solitary pace leader. I exited the highway, ten miles north of Baltimore, turned around, and never got out of the car until I pulled into Charlottesville 150 miles later.

By then, as it turns out, my son was released from the Emergency Room after three chest x-rays failed to find a collapsed lung. “Watchful waiting” became the game plan. We were tremendously relieved that our son avoided the painful surgery we had feared, but it meant we found ourselves cooling our heels in Charlottesville.  Instead of spending Saturday in the hospital, we enjoyed a beautiful day together seeing sights and picking apples. And at 8:00 AM, as the Baltimore marathon was starting, I went for my own long run in solidarity with my compatriots.

The whole thing was a very emotional experience. I made the right decision, because it totally aligned with my values. Very few things could have interfered with my running of the Baltimore marathon. Not even minor discomforts or injuries could have stopped me from trying. But a family medical emergency, with people who count on me for support and guidance, is one of those things. It provoked a sympathetic reaction that moved me to action.

In retrospect, however, I would say I made the right decision at the wrong time. Perhaps, if I had been able to engage empathy more than sympathy, perhaps if there was less “emotional contagion” and more rational deliberation using emotional information, I would have chosen to remain in Baltimore until the results from the x-rays were known. But my emotions got the better of me, and I put myself on the road to Charlottesville.

Some might say that making the right decision at the wrong time led to the wrong decision. If I want to listen to the gremlins or jackals in my head, those voices that second guess our actions and words, it’s easy for me to kick myself for not waiting a couple of hours. Unless, of course, the neighbor is right. Perhaps you’ve heard the story:

Once upon a time, a farmer had an old ox that he used for plowing. One morning he woke up, and the ox had died. The farmer was lamenting to his neighbor about this, saying, “This is just the worst thing that could happen to me!”

And the neighbor said, “Maybe…….maybe not”.

A few days later, the farmer found a big strong horse on the road. No one knew who it belonged to, so he took the horse home. It turned out to be a much better plough horse than the ox, because it was young and strong. The farmer, rejoicing, said to the neighbor, “This is the best thing that could happen to me!”.

And the neighbor said, “Maybe…….maybe not”.

A few months down the road, the farmer’s son was out riding the horse. Something startled it, and the horse threw him. The farmer’s son ended up with a broken leg. The farmer was again lamenting to his neighbor, saying, “This is just the worst thing that could happen!”

And the neighbor said, “Maybe…….maybe not”.

The next day, the king’s men came to town with a proclamation stating the kingdom was going to war, and all able-bodied young men were being called to go. All of the young men in town, except for the farmer’s son, had to go. And as they sat down for dinner that night, the farmer looked over at his neighbor’s house, and didn’t say a word.

So, was my quick decision to put the needs of the one ahead of the needs of the many right or wrong? Was the news of my son’s collapsed lung, which turned out to be a false-alarm, the best thing or the worst thing that could have happened.

I, for one, don’t intend to say a word.

News Flash: After communicating about the false alarm with the pace-team organizers, and after offering to return my pace-team gifts since I didn’t run the race, I received the following wonderful update. Enjoy!

I am glad your son is doing better and please know that he is in our thoughts. Every pacer, to a person, was saddened by his case and wished him well. Know that you were missed beyond belief today, but family is more important than anything and false alarm or not, that’s where you needed to be.

As far as the gifts go, no way, no how you’re returning anything to us. Your spirit was alive and well in the 4:45 group and that alone merits a reward. Everyone knows 4:45 is your group and the expression most uttered today was “WWBD” or “What Would Bob Do?” Ron filled in admirably today, though he came in at 4:44:57, which is clearly not up to par 🙂

(This last comment was a joking reference to our having won the perfect-pacers award for the past three years in a row, with all four of us • Ron included • coming in at EXACTLY 4:45:00 last year!)

Coaching Inquiries: When has sympathy moved you to action? Was it the best thing or the worst thing that could have happened? When has bad news led to good things? How can you step back, in the flush of the moment, to integrate rational and emotional perspectives? Who can be your thinking partner in pressure situations? How can empathy be your guide?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Your interview with Jennifer in last week Provision, Empathy In Action, made me feel that we were kindred spirits. What an inspiration! Thanks.

Today’s Provision was very meaningful. Thank you for sharing your interview with Jennifer. She was both inspirational and challenging as she took her own difficult situation and created from it a new model of life she wanted to live and share with others. This takes courage. The brother of a pastor whom I run with on Saturdays recently adopted two, teenage children from Ghana. I am so moved by the willingness of people to invest in others with their lives

I have two adopted sons, who are seriously stressing me out right now. The 9-yr-old has been the major source of stress and heartache in my life for over two years now. I keep trying to get help and feel like I’m shouting in the wind. The 6-yr-old is not responding well to first-grade. My empathy and hope is getting beat up. The nurturing home I meant to provide is in shambles. I’m having a really bad day, and this LifeTrek Provision just hit me in the gut. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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