About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

26 February 2010

A Sacred Mission

On September 7, 2002, Navy Secretary Gordon England announced the decision to name the fifth amphibious transport dock ship of the San Antonio class U.S.S. New York (LPD 21). He said:
"This new class of ships will project American power to the far corners of the Earth and support the cause of freedom well into the 21st century. From the war for independence through the war on terrorism, which we wage today, the courage and heroism of the people of New York has been an inspiration. U.S.S. New York will play an important rule in our Navy's future and will be a fitting tribute to the people of the Empire State."
In response, New York Governor George Pataki, who had requested the the Navy revive the name U.S.S. New York in honor of the 9/11 victims, said:
"The U.S.S. New York will ensure that all New Yorkers and the world will never forget the evil attacks of September 11, 2001, and the courage and compassion New Yorkers showed in response to terror."
The ship's motto is Strength forged through sacrifice. Never Forget.

The ship is not only special because of its name; it is also special because 24 tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center was melted down in a foundry in Amite, La., to cast the ship's bow-stem section, which is the foremost section of the hull on the water line that slices through the water. When the steel was poured into the molds on September 9, 2003, Navy Captain Kevin Wensing who was there said:
"Those big, rough steelworkers treated it with total reverence. It was a spiritual moment for everyone there."
It wasn't too many months later that Hurricane Katrina disrupted construction on the ship when it pounded the Gulf Coast, but the 684-foot vessel escaped serious damage and within two weeks thousands of workers - including hundreds who lost their homes in the storm - were back at work. Some who lost their homes lived at the shipyard. Others lived on a Navy barge. Still others in bunk-style housing. Why this great devotion to duty? Philip Teel, a vice president for Northrup Grumman and head of its ship systems division, shared his opinion at a Navy League dinner in New York City on March 22, 2006:
"It sounds trite, but I saw it in their eyes. These are very patriotic people, and the fact the ship has steel from the World Trade Center is a source of great pride. They view it as something incredibly special. They're building it for their country."
Our highest calling is to make a contribution to something outside ourselves and our own. As a result, we are most committed to our work when we feel that we are dutifully and loyally serving a group of others too large for us to know everyone in it. Examples abound: soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, members of the FBI, CIA, DEA, INS, and others risking their lives for their country; research scientists dedicating their lives to eradicate deadly and debilitating diseases; teachers working long hours for minimal pay to prepare our kids to go out and make the world a better place; employees who work for companies or organizations that not only provide important products or services, but are also serving and supporting the communities that surround them; etc.

Author Robert Heinlein viewed moral behavior as that which contributes to survival: first for ourselves; second for our families; third for our group; fourth for all of mankind. His notion of moral behavior at the third level - which he called patriotism - was women and children first. He told a story to illustrate this in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in April, 1973:
I said that 'Patriotism' is a way of saying 'Women and children first.' And that no one can force a man to feel this way. Instead he must embrace it freely. I want to tell about one such man. He wore no uniform and no one knows his name, or where he came from; all we know is what he did.

In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut right through it.

One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing these tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her.

But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young woman's foot loose. No luck —

Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free... and the train hit them.

The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and died later, the tramp was killed — and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself.

The husband's behavior was heroic... but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And that's all we'll ever know about him.

This is how a man dies. This is how a man ... lives!
  • How do you go about learning from your successes, your failures, or significant events that impact your life?
  • How do you make sure any lessons you learn are integrated into your current approach to work and life?
  • How have you dealt with any sacred wounds you've received? Is there a better way?
  • What is your reaction to Robert Heinlein's notion of moral behavior and his story of the tragedy in his hometown?
  • What is your life's mission? How does it bring out the best in you?
  • How does your company's mission and/or that of your job bring out the best in you?
"You live and learn. Or you don't live long." - Robert Heinlein
"You cannot put a cheap band-aid on a sacred wound; there is no way through pain but to walk through it." - Dr. Robin Smith
"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all his life in the grey, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then - the glory - so that cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man's importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories" - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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