Today is April 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you graceful under pressure?” Navigating the chaos and leveraging your mind, body, and spirit may occasionally ask you to be graceful under pressure. Such moments are rarely scheduled, pre-determined, or routine. Utility pole worker J.D. Thompson and professional baseball player Jim Rice are two such examples of people who demonstrated unprecedented courage while under pressure.
In 1967 Thompson was working on a utility pole with his co-worker Randall Champion. The two power linemen were performing routine maintenance one day when Champion brushed one of the high voltage lines at the very top of the utility pole. These are the lines that can be heard “singing” with electricity. Over 4000 volts entered Champion’s body and instantly stopped his heart (an electric chair uses about 2000 volts). His safety harness prevented a fall, and Thompson, who had been ascending below him, quickly realized what happened and raced up the pole to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
He was unable to perform CPR given the circumstances but continued breathing into Champion’s lungs until he felt a slight pulse, then unbuckled his harness and descended with him on his shoulder. Thompson and another worker administered CPR on the ground, and Champion was moderately revived by the time paramedics arrived, eventually making a full recovery.
The apprentice lineman exhibited tremendous courage, unwavering determination, and grace under extreme pressure to save a life. Champion lived another 35 years, surviving another electrical shock along the way, before dying of heart failure in 2002. Yet when you ask Thompson about the split second he says he was just doing his job, following his training and that it was no big deal. Rocco Morabito took the photograph, entitled “The Kiss of Life,” that would eventually win the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.
According to Morabito: “I heard screaming. I looked up and I saw this man hanging down. Oh my God. I didn’t know what to do. I took a picture right quick. J.D. Thompson was running toward the pole. I went to my car and called an ambulance. I got back to the pole and J.D. was breathing into Champion. I backed off, way off until I hit a house and I couldn’t go any farther. I took another picture. Then I heard Thompson shouting down: He’s breathing!”
Morabito served in World War II in the Army Air Forces as a ball-turret gunner on a B-17. After the war, he returned to the Jacksonville Journal and started his photography career shooting sporting events for the paper. He worked for the Journal for 42 years, 33 of them as a photographer, until retiring in 1982.
American novelist Ernest Miller Hemingway noted “Courage is grace under pressure.” Thompson demonstrated grace under pressure and his courage saved Champion’s life. Much like Thompson professional baseball player Jim Rice demonstrated grace under pressure to save a life.
During a Red Sox baseball game on August 8, 1982, a line drive struck 4-year-old Jonathan Keane in the side of the head. Recognizing that the boy needed immediate medical attention, Red Sox first basemen Rice went into the stands, picked up the boy and rushed him to the dugout where he received immediate medical attention. Newspaper photos from 1982, published in the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, show Boston Red Sox star Jim Rice carrying a badly injured little boy out of the stands moments after a ball hit him in the head.
Within just a few minutes Jonathan was rushed to the hospital where doctors credited Rice with saving the boy’s life. Keane spent five days in the hospital in critical condition but returned to Fenway Park the following season to throw out the first pitch at opening day. Keane is alive and well and has no recollection of how Rice stayed cool under pressure to save his life. "I think about my family and Jim Rice saving us, saving my life," he said. "Everyone else didn't do anything and he had that reaction ... Instinctively lifted me out of the stands and bringing me to the ambulance."
Stories of grace under pressure remind us of what is possible, the depths of the human spirit, and the power of healing. In her 1995 publication A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck By Lightning nature writer Gretel Ehrlich wrote: “Survival is as much a matter of grace as fight. The expression, 'grace under pressure' implies the attainment of equanimity and equilibrium. The fundamental durability of the human body surprises us because the pain can be so intense — yet pain is often transient and hides the tremendous efforts the body is engaged in to heal itself.” In 1991 Ehrlich was hit by lightning and was incapacitated for several years and wrote the book to share her experience.
Today’s reflection reminds us that while we are putting in the daily grind to translate one dream after another into reality, life situations may call us to be graceful under pressure. It is in these moments that you can rely on your self-awareness in order to leverage your mind, body, and spirit and navigate the chaos of the situation.
In a February 2, 2013, Psychology Today article "The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure," Christopher Bergland discussed eight habits available to individuals who would like to practice stimulating a healthy "vagal tone" and in so doing, harness the power of their nerve, so they can stay calm, cool, and collected in any storm. In short, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, originates in the brainstem and extends down into the abdomen. It monitors and receives information about the functioning of the heart, lungs, and other internal organs so that you can focus attention on other matters.
According to Bergland, “Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase in heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease in heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale—is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.”
To help individuals develop a healthy vagal tone, Bergland recommended a variety of habits including “cardio-respiratory activity, strength training, yoga, and meditation.” These activities can help someone achieve a stronger sense of equanimity. Long a tenet of philosophers over the centuries, equanimity is often defined as “Mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Since it has biological roots in the vagus nerve, equanimity is synonymous with grace under pressure.
As further evidence of how being graceful under pressure is one of the many strategies discussed in this Navigate the Chaos series, Bergland concluded his article and stressed “Equanimity is not synonymous with passivity. As you strive to push yourself ever higher—and take on bigger challenges—do so with what I call ‘Ferocious Equanimity.’ Use your vagus nerve to stay balanced and calm when the stakes are high. As you push against your limits remember that your vagus nerve is always there to keep you imperturbable and steady on the high-wire act of living your life to its fullest and maximizing your potential.”
How often has life asked you to be graceful under pressure?
How did you respond to each situation?
How often do you practice one or more habits to improve your vagus nerve?
How often do you remind yourself of the connection between developing a higher sense of equanimity and performing with grace under pressure?
How often do you ‘remain balanced and calm when the stakes are high?’