Working Life from Purpose and Not Emotions: “Ma’am, You’ve Got a Flat Tire”

By Jocelyne Durand

(An excerpt from my upcoming book, From Fear to Freedom: Triumphing Over Abuse and Difficult Relationships)

I had parked in a parking lot in downtown Ottawa. I sprang from the car, briefcase in hand, in a hurry to get to my class. A man with a cap on his head sat in a blue pickup truck, waving at me to get my attention. Then, he pointed to my car, saying, “Look!”

I looked and could not believe my eyes: my car had a flat tire! I had driven all the way from the country on the busy highway in rush hour traffic, been stuck in a traffic jam, and then finally parked in the crowed parking lot—all with a tire that was flat. The car had never pulled to the left or right and somehow, I had made it here safely. I smiled at the man, waved back at him and thanked him for telling me about the tire. 

As quickly as possible, I made my way to my class. I had no time to deal with the tire now; I would have to take care of it after work. My class started in less than 30 minutes with a new client organization and a full student roster. There was a lot of material to prepare and I needed to stay calm and focussed. The participants would be entering the classroom any minute and this flat tire would have to wait for me when my work day ended. What a fiasco.

My anxiety was somewhat relieved, however, as I heard a voice from inside, saying: Forget it, we have a job to do here; we’ll take care of the flat tire later. Instead of concentrating just on the problem and being annoyed or knocked off balance by it, I listened to my inner voice, focussed on my objective, and remained attentive to my students’ needs throughout the day. I even used the situation in class as an example of how important it is to stay calm and focused under pressure. Things went so well that the participants who had me as a teacher that day could hardly believe I had started it with the stress of such an unwelcome incident.

At lunch time, I tried to call my husband to see whether he could help me, but I was unable to reach him. Never mind, I would call for roadside assistance at the end of the day. The workshop continued beautifully. I was so involved in the class that I totally forgot about the flat tire. When I left the building, I was still exhilarated from teaching.

Then, the image of the flat tire came rushing back. I could already imagine having to call for roadside assistance, waiting in the deserted parking lot for them to come to my rescue and eventually mount the spare tire. Later, I would have to go to the garage, and so on. With these thoughts, I began to deflate. Suddenly, the exhaustion from the whole day caught up with me. Suddenly, my briefcase felt like it contained a couple of boat anchors.

I obviously knew better than this, but we all have those moments when we allow negative aggravations to get the best of us. With my head hanging, I went into the parking lot and trudged toward the car. When I looked down at the tires, I was suddenly confused. Where was the flat? Was I seeing things? I kicked the tire, which seemed fully inflated and totally hard. Had I looked on the wrong side of the car? No, it was the right rear tire; I would not have been able to see the tire on the other side from where I was standing this morning. 

Then what had happened? Had I imagined all this? I laughed, wondering if perhaps my husband had received my distress call telepathically and come to my aid at lunchtime. My mind was racing to find an answer. 

Perplexed, I opened the driver’s side door to put my briefcase in the car. In the corner of the window sat a little note written in blue ink. It read, “I put air in your tire this morning after I told you it was flat. I hope you have enough air to get home. Mike.”

It was from the man in the cap who I had met this morning. After I left, he had gone to all the trouble of putting air in my tire, and was worried about whether it was inflated enough for me to return home. What wonderful thoughtfulness. It was almost unbelievable.

As a precaution, I took side streets all the way to the garage. The tire held the road really well and the mechanic repaired it right away. When it was time to pay, I asked the mechanic, “Was there really a flat in the tire or was it just a slow leak?”

“No, it was definitely a flat. We pulled out a huge nail before we fixed it. It’s all right now.” 

As it turned out, I even arrived home before my husband, only a little later than usual. Later, I told him all about my fascinating day and we marveled at the kindness that Mike had shown me. The next morning, I tried to find the Good Samaritan to thank him. I phoned the garage whose name was printed in the advertising on the back of the note. The attendant said, “We don’t have anyone named Mike working here,” and they did not know who he might be. Curiouser and curiouser.    

I constructed the note in my head but never got to deliver it in person. Dear Mike, thank you so much for coming to my rescue. Yes, there was enough air in the tire to take me home safely, and even to drive to the garage. Thank you so much!

As for my experience that day, I realized that by deciding to focus on my class, to stay positive and attentive, I had chosen to be cause rather than to become the consequence of the hectic circumstances and emotions of my morning. If I had allowed self-pity, anger or upset to prevail, I would have ruined my day and perhaps shut out all the assistance and protection that I enjoyed when I kept my heart open.

Coexisting with an unpleasant feeling or some level of discomfort while we continue to work toward our goal is an advanced skill and technique that can be learned. It’s derived from the three principles of the Morita approach, one of two psychotherapies practiced in Japan and also Europe that are at the core of educational programs on Japanese Psychology[1]. The Morita principles are: 

  • Know your purpose
  • Accept your feelings 
  • Do what needs doing

This may seem like a novel concept in a society in which many of our attitudes and actions (controllable) are often justified by emotions (uncontrollable). Working situations from purpose and not emotions is a rare skill that allows one to master life and achieve goals at a very high level. The capacity to tolerate irritants as you keep reaching for your goals is practiced by those who are highly focused on the achievement of their dreams, regardless of the circumstances of the environment. For instance, that ability to tolerate emotional, mental and physical irritations while continuing to reach for the goal is the only way a football player can cross the line and savor the moment of euphoria that he’s been dreaming of.  

 1 Morita (action) and Naikan (self-reflection) are two approaches to mental health inspired by psychotherapies that have been practiced in Japan and are also popular in Europe. Their purpose is to refocus one’s attention on a constructive goal. Shoma Morita (1874-1938) and Ishin Yoshimoto (1916-1988), the developers of the therapies, were inspired by their Zen Buddhist practice, simplified and devoid of any religious component, to make two powerful techniques of life mastery that would suit our modern lives. Dr David Reynolds, an American anthropologist and former university professor, has adapted and combined the two therapies to create Constructive Living®, an educational program he launched in North America in the 1980s. Training programs in Japanese psychology have also been offered by the ToDo Institute in Vermont since 1992.

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Jocelyne Durand

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