The room was almost full of 250 people . . . it was almost go-time . . . and I was rattled.
This was my biggest speech of this past year, one I prepared long and hard for, at the PRSA International conference last month in Atlanta. But I wasn’t myself.
First, my laptop froze during warm-ups. That’s never happened before. Right then, the meeting organizer walked in and said cryptically, “I need to talk to you.” Turns out she had a concern about an unrelated part of the conference and asked for my help. I said yes, but my mind was far away.
You see, the worst part of all this started the night before, in my hotel room. I got this text message from my next-door neighbor:
You need to call Amy.
Amy is my wife of 18 years.
I quickly texted back, “Is something wrong?”
Talk to Amy.
Not exactly reassuring. You’ve probably had a similar experience – worst feeling ever waiting for her to pick up, trying not to think about what it could be.
Turns out she had been in a car accident an hour earlier. She walked away with “only” a possible mild concussion. The other vehicle caved in the front left quarter of our car. A split second later and it would have nailed the driver-side door and plowed right into . . . Amy. I was shaken just hearing about it – imagine how she felt. Isn’t it weird how a big surprise can make you feel frustrated and cursed yet relieved and incredibly grateful at the same time?
Now the kind of cute/funny/sad part – she wasn’t going to tell me about it! Because she knew I had my big speech in the morning, and she felt there wasn’t anything I could do anyway. That’s why my neighbor had to intervene.
We spent some time on the phone and she was brave for me. She convinced me she was okay. My great neighbors, including one who is a nurse, went over and checked on her and called me later to assure me that she was okay and there was nothing I could do if I came home.
So after a restless night for both of us, 2,000 miles apart, I called her again in the morning. Again she assured me everything was fine and wished me well.
So I hung up, put on my game face, and my laptop froze . . .
The conference organizer leaves, the clock’s ticking toward the start time. Usually at this point I’m circulating in the crowd and chatting with people – that helps me get a feel for the audience. But this time I was too distracted – I headed backstage to grab a minute of alone time to gather my thoughts.
I stood behind a black curtain with one foot on the step up to the stage, trying to calm my racing mind. Then I saw someone approaching from behind the curtain. It was Leon.
He’s probably 6-4, a lean 250 pounds, and despite those outsize dimensions his smile seems too big even for him (as you can see in this pic). Leon Tucker, director of communications for a Habitat for Humanity chapter in Delaware, and I had first met after a speech I gave back in the summer.
He walked up to reconnect and thank me for “inspiring” him previously. All I said was, “Thanks, I needed that right now. I’m feeling a little rattled.”
He must have seen it in my eyes, because he put his giant left hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m a believer, so I’d like to ask God . . .” and proceeded to offer a heartfelt prayer on my behalf.
Here’s the thing – Leon didn’t really know me at this point. He didn’t know if I’d be deeply moved by his gesture or weirded out by it. He clearly didn’t think about that. He just acted authentically and gave what he knew how to give.
Turns out I was deeply moved. I drew real strength and peace from his kindness. After “amen” we shared a quick hug and then I practically leapt onto the stage.
I know you want to “give back.” I know your natural inclination is to help people. But you don’t have to limit your service to formal volunteering at a non-profit or starting a fancy project. In fact, you can serve people every day, even at work. ESPECIALLY at work.
We can lift each other in professional settings just like Leon lifted me. Coworkers, bosses, employees, vendors, suppliers, janitors, even journalists and bloggers (more on this in a couple weeks). We never know what they might be going through outside the office walls.
And sometimes, whether you believe it’s the universe or God or just coincidence, your kind gesture or extra effort might come at the precise moment they need it most :).
Happy holidays, and thanks for reading these posts this year.