Ted Sorenson, a writer and journalist who was especially active as he worked with President John F. Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs crisis in the early 1960's, spoke last week on NPR. It was chilling to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stories that showed just how close we came to all being wiped off the face of the earth because of uncontrolled nuclear war that was close to being sparked.
I was in high school and remember how scared we all were. So scared that the school allowed teachers to keep the radio going during class, just turned down so the teachers could adjust the volume whenever any breaking news came.
Kennedy didn't rush to action. He used the utmost diplomacy, insisting on waiting until he got some answers before trying other communication. In that, he thought like a person from Eastern cultures.
Sorenson identified several factors that gave Kennedy the advantage. He respected history and took a long look at the present in light of the past. He had a marvelous sense of humor, even in the midst of the crisis. When someone commented that he stood ten feet tall the day that the crisis was averted, he pointed out in a spirit of humility that he'd be small again very soon. He had the distinct advantage of living abroad for an extended period of time. As Sorenson says, that international experience just gives one a different perspective.
All of this worked together to make Kennedy a very powerful President even though his life was cut short.
Anyone attempting to bring about change will do well to look at the history of the problem being studied and how slow change has come. Humor helps deflect dysfunctional anxiety, and humility keeps us from expecting to work miracles. Getting outside the rigid system, to learn new approaches to the problem in order to break up the rocks of resistance a little better, is probably the greatest move we can make.