Japan Tragedy – Symbolic Acts

In my quest to make sense of the recent tragedy in Japan I’m writing about my experiences from Tokyo, where I’ve been working for the past 2 weeks.

When my phone rang in California at 4 AM on March 11 I knew it couldn’t be good news. My dad was calling from 3 time zones ahead to tell me that tragedy had struck Japan. (I travel to Japan on business pretty much every month, and have many friends and colleagues there.) What did my dad think I could do from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area? I really don’t know, but that’s how my family is. Wieflings just automatically assume there’s something we can do about any situation, no matter how overwhelming and intimidating it might be. That trait, which I firmly believe is passed on genetically – in our family anyhow – has  been a great asset to me leading projects.

While there certainly are times when I’m tempted to allow myself to be lulled into a sense of complacency by thoughts of how powerless I am to make a positive difference in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I’ve learned to resist that urge. Refusing to give up hope even when convinced of my own helplessness has often led to ideas that ultimately yielded beneficial results. Of course these ideas sometimes take hours or days to emerge, and frequently are born from lengthy dialogues with “thinking partners” who help untangle my thoughts and contribute their own. But eventually possibilities emerge if the mind insists on holding onto hope.

Feeling hopeless? There’s always something you can do to make a positive contribution, however tiny. Even a symbolic act that buoys the spirits of your teammates can be a welcome alternative to sitting helplessly by watching bad news unfold.

In the case of the recent earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant triple disaster, of course I donated money to the relief fund, but that didn’t seem nearly enough. Finally I hit on an idea of sending a symbol of my concern to my partners in Tokyo. I purchased a roll of Lifesaver candies for each person (in a nod to the nuclear aspect of the situation I chose the Wint-o-green flavor because they glow in the dark when you bite them), put a little heart sticker on each one, popped each roll into a little silk bag with an inspiring message, and shipped them off to Japan. (Naturally I worried that the box would take up precious cargo space required for disaster supplies, but I decided to proceed anyhow.)

It was a small gesture, meaningless in the grand scheme of things of course, but what isn’t?! Now that I’m in Japan for the first time since the tragedy many people have taken the time to tell me how much it meant to them to receive this little reminder of my concern for them.

What symbolic act could express your support for your team during tough times? A little gesture can mean a lot.

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