The President arrived back at the White House at 1:40 PM and went for a swim. I sat on the side of the pool, and we talked. At 2:30 PM we walked up to the Oval Room. – Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a hothead. I react to things far more quickly than I need to, often having to backtrack statements or actions that I made in the heat of a moment. Far too many times, I’ve overreacted and said things or done things that are, in retrospect, not only stupid but embarrassing. I mean, I’m a grown man! Why do I still struggle with temper tantrums? (Because that’s really all they are. See, told ya, embarrassing.)
Even in the classroom, where my composure is supposed to be total and my responses to anything should always be measured, more times than I’d like to admit I failed horribly at being the understanding and supportive teacher. Total and utter failure on so many fronts.
It’s one of the reasons why I invest time working on myself and why I’ve found some purpose in studying the stoic philosophy which is grounded in not overreacting and accepting that what is is and that I am in 100% in control of how I respond to anything that happens to me.
So, when I read Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy’s memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was struck by the statement I shared at the beginning of this article. If there was ever a time when someone could have overreacted, President John F. Kennedy would have been justified as the Soviet Union secretly moved nuclear weapons into Cuba.
But, no, that’s not what happened at all. In the days leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy presented the ultimate expression of cool, calm, and collected.
Evidenced by aerial photography, the Soviet Union had begun a buildup of weaponry on the island nation of Cuba, some 90 miles south of the coast of Florida. Needless to say, the world stood still for a brief time in the fall of 1962 as the great superpower nations of the world stood toe-to-toe in a standoff sure to change the course of history.
I, for one, am glad I was not the occupant of the Oval Office in late 1962. I’m also grateful that many of the decision makers of that time did not have the final say in how the United States would deal with the Soviet Union.
President Kennedy, surrounded by knowledgeable advisors, each with their own assessment of how to handle the situation, kept his composure and refused to act quickly, knowing that if he made the wrong decision, there might not be anyone left to tell the story.
If you’re unfamiliar with the events of October 1962, you may not know that there were two camps in dealing with Cuba and the Soviet Union: invade Cuba or blockade any Soviet ships from reaching Cuba. Many of the Joint Chiefs of Staff favored the invasion action, believing that the only response the Soviets would understand was a strong military response. Others, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, advocated for a blockade.
On a Saturday morning, President Kennedy was in Chicago when his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, phoned him and said they were ready to meet with him and make a decision on the US response. The President cancelled his trip and flew back to the White House.
Now, here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. Rather than rushing to meet with his senior advisors as soon as he arrived in Washington, DC, President Kennedy returned to the White House to meet with his brother.
And he took a swim.
Think about that for a moment. At first glance, you may feel indignant. You may think that taking a swim at that moment in time was a waste and may even fuel the playboy image of JFK that was fueled by the tales surrounding his life. You may question why he stopped to take a swim rather than heading directly into a meeting.
I feel confident that JFK was not shirking his responsibility by taking a detour to do a few laps in the pool. I don’t think he was trying to postpone the decision.
I believe he wanted some time to think and prepare himself for what he was about to do. So, he took a swim. Eventually, the decision was made to begin a blockade of Cuba, ultimately leading to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I wonder how things might have been different if JFK hadn’t taken that swim. Hadn’t taken those few minutes to focus on breathing, focus on himself, focus on his thoughts. And focus on how the decision he was about to make would impact not only his presidency but his life and the lives of millions around the world.
This was not a moment that called for overreaction but for quiet thought and reflection.
Very few times in our lives will we be faced with a decision that has the kind of impact Kennedy had when choosing to blockade ships rather than begin an all-out invasion of Cuba. But there is no less reason for us to take a moment before we react to any situation and reflect on what we are doing, how we will respond, and the possible outcomes from our response.
Why aren’t we willing to take time to think, to be still, to breathe before making decisions that affect our lives and those around us? Why aren’t we willing to think about what we do in the classroom in the heat of the moment? Why should we be any less concerned about the consequences of our actions will be in our classroom, our school, and in the lives of our students?
When you are faced with a difficult situation in the future, before responding, maybe you should take a swim. Or go for a walk. Or sit in silence. However you choose to think about your response, take the time to think through the repercussions of what you decide to do. Seek wise council, if possible. Get more information on what lead to the development of this particular situation.
Keep strong, is possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. – Basil Liddell Hart, Deterrent or Defense
Have unlimited patience. You do not know the whole story, you do not know how others will react. Think it through and be confident in your response.
I know this task will be difficult for me but is well worth the investment of time and energy to become a better person and education. I hope you take the time to evaluate your own responses to situations in the past and use that evaluation to be better informed in the future.
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