Last night my wife Linda asked me a question that got me to pause and think.
“In one word, why are you not more effective?”
Lots of words began to flood my mind. That one word could be pivotal in my pursuit to become my best self in the coming year.
How about for you? Does Linda’s question prompt any words to come to mind for you? Keep this question in mind while I share a story.
A day trip, a grandson, and two sticks of gum
Late last summer I took one of my grandsons to the Aerospace Museum at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento. Among the many things we saw and learned that day, one moment stood out—we were told a moving story of love, sharing, freedom and “becoming” about a US Air Force pilot who made a difference that started with just two sticks of Doublemint gum.
A man of action
In May 1945, combat in Europe ended when Germany surrendered to the Allies. As a result of peace agreements, Germany was divided into four zones administered by the United States, France, England, and the Soviet Union. The city of Berlin was located geographically within the Soviet Union’s zone, but it was divided into four separately administered zones like Germany itself. As tensions rose among Allied countries, the Soviet Union decided to block shipments of food and fuel into all of Berlin to gain control over all the city’s zones. The United States, France, and England responded by beginning the Berlin Airlift to sustain more than 2 million Berliners with food and fuel. Some 4,500 tons a day had to be delivered to prevent the city’s occupants from starving to death.
In July 1948, Gail Halvorsen was stationed in Mobile, Alabama in a squadron of pilots flying C74 transport airplanes. When the urgent call came for pilots to fly food and fuel to Berlin, Gail leapt to action.
The Airlift’s mission was clear: deliver food and fuel to Berliners so they would not starve or freeze to death. Along with hundreds of Allied pilots and crew, around the clock flights to Berlin began on June 26, 1948. The pilots flew from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof airport near Berlin, a former base of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. From the air, Gail could see the total devastation of Berlin. He felt a great desire to help the suffering.
Freedom more than flour
On a day off from flying, Gail arranged to have a tour of the Berlin area. While snapping pictures and waiting for his jeep to arrive, he noticed a group of children standing at a fence watching the airplanes land and take off. Gail walked over to talk with the children, and they asked him many questions about the Airlift. What followed forever changed Gail’s life and many of the children’s lives as well. Gail remarked, “I received a lesson about priorities. They were interested in freedom more than flour. They fully recognized that between the two there was a real relationship, but they had already decided which was preeminent. I was astonished with the maturity and clarity that they exhibited in advising me of what their values were and what was of greatest importance to them in these circumstances. In the months between the aircraft over Berlin changed their cargo from bombs to flour, the children had witnessed an accelerated change in international relations. These young kids began giving me the most meaningful lesson in freedom I ever had. Here I was, an American, almost bald-headed at the age of twenty-seven, yet I was learning about something I took too much for granted.” (The Berlin Candy Bomber, p. 93)
As Gail walked away from the fence, he put his hand in his pocket where he found two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. He thought the children at the fence probably had not had any chocolate or gum in two or three years. He debated returning to the fence with the gum knowing he may miss his ride into the city if he went back. He returned to the fence. That decision changed his life. He handed them his two sticks of gum and watched as the children divided the gum and shared it so as many children as possible could have a small piece. For the others, the children passed around the wrappers so everyone could smell the mint. Gail had an epiphany of how to help the children.
Uncle Wiggly Wings
Since there simply was not time on each flight to come to the fence with candy and gum, Gail told the children he would drop candy to them from his airplane the next day. How would they know it was him, the children asked? Gail said he would wiggle his plane’s wings. The children asked him to explain the word wiggle. Gail showed him with his arms.
After flying back that day, he quickly made three small parachutes from handkerchiefs and tied chocolate bars to the parachutes. Unfortunately, his first flight was in the dark, but on his second flight he saw the children at the fence. Gail wiggled his plane’s wings. The children recognized him instantly. Just at the right time, Gail had his co-pilot release the parachutes through a chute behind the pilot’s seat. After their delivery, they saw the three parachutes being waved by children at the fence. Thereafter the children began waving at every airplane coming and going. The children named Gail “Uncle Wiggly Wings.” They sent letters of thanks to the airport. A newspaper featured a story about the candy drop. Gail had not received permission to drop candy, however his superiors quickly embraced the cause due to the wonderful publicity. Word of the parachutes was flying around the world. In the United States, volunteers began making parachutes and candy companies donated many tons of candy and gum to be airlifted and dropped to the children.
Stop dreaming and start becoming
What a beautiful story of becoming by an obscure pilot who desired to help the suffering children after WWII. Many words come to mind related to my wife’s question about what holds us back from effectiveness. The words that can propel us forward are opportunity, ingenuity, action, and empathy.
As I further ponder my wife’s question and Gail’s story, together with the insight from Man’s Search for Meaning on self-transcendence, I reflected again on this excerpt.
“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called selfactualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
Our goal must be to transcend ourselves to become ourselves. How do we move from dreaming of self-transcendence to the realization of it?
Maybe it starts for you with a single word.
Questions to consider: Did you find a word in this story of becoming that inspired you? What will be your word for the year?