It's a small world after all – Part 2

by Steve Brock on November 18, 2011

 Last time I wrote of how my friend Bruce and I met an elderly man in Taiwan who had attended our grad school long before it was a school. Nice, interesting coincidence.

It is a small world, after all, so chance encounters like that happen. In fact, they probably occur more than we realize. On a trip, however, we take better note of them. We see connections we might otherwise miss at home. We do so in part because we pay better attention. We notice more.

But trips also create greater opportunities for these chance encounters because we’re out and about more, mixing it up with a wider variety of people. Thus, a chance encounter with someone you have a connection to is likely just a matter of statistical odds, mathematical probability, six degrees of separation and all that.

Uh huh.


I’m on a trip with my family this summer to Boston. We’ve just visited King’s Chapel on The Freedom Trail. As we’re walking out, guess who comes walking in?

The elderly gentleman from Taiwan? Nooooooo. Nice guess.

It’s Bruce.


Bruce, Eric and Xu outside King's Chapel, Boston

He, his wife Xu and their son Eric are in town for a football camp for Eric. They are taking one day to see the sights. Bruce and family live in Chicago. I’ve seen him once in the last fifteen years and now, here he is.

In Boston.

In a place where I would have missed him had I arrived or departed just two minutes earlier.

I’m not all wigged out in a Twilight Zone doo doo doo doo way, but I am struck by the extreme curiosity of it all. What, exactly, are the mathematical odds of this occurring? I’ve wondered about that since then, trying to figure out not the probability of the event, but the meaning behind this coincidence. I regularly quip that my theology does not include the word coincidence, so there has to be a reason for this chance encounter, right?

So after pondering it for quite some time, here’s my conclusion:

I have no idea.

It was later that day that I met Tony and helped him get a train ticket to Portland, Maine. So maybe it was God’s little joke about meeting an old friend and a new one all within a handful of hours. Maybe.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter why. It was just good to see an old friend in an unexpected place and thus add meaning to both the location and the relationship.

Also, in many ways, I don’t really want to know why. I know why planes fly and how microwave ovens cook but that doesn’t enhance my experience of flight or of defrosting food rapidly. Instead, coincidences like this one remind me that there’s still mystery and wonder in the world.

In our sophisticated culture where answers to practically anything are a Google search away, I find that wonder and mystery take a hit. I simply don’t acknowledge or value them much.

But running into Bruce in a place miles from each of our homes helps me appreciate that mystery and wonder still abound.

In Boston.

In Taiwan.

And in friendships that transcend both time and distance.

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Saving a life in Boston

by Steve Brock on July 29, 2011

Well, we didn't actually save the man's life - that's what the guys in the big red truck are for - and technically we were in Cambridge, not Boston and yet...

On the morning of our last day in Boston, my wife Kris and our sons Sumner and Connor are walking back with me to our hotel having just visited Harvard and MIT in Cambridge. 

Suddenly, Connor – who had been trailing about 20 feet behind the rest of us – comes running up.

“There’s a man back there who was screaming,” he says.

Kris and I glance at each other. “Just keep walking,” Kris replies. I agree.

“But he screamed out and then fell over,” Connor persists. 

“Someone will take care of him,” I say, but by now we’ve slowed down.

“I think something’s really wrong,” Connor continues. “He cried out, fell to the ground and was shaking.” 

I can no longer ignore the humanitarian pleadings of my 13-year-old son.

We turn around and go back to find a man lying in the street by the gutter, unconscious. I reach for my phone to dial 911. Unfortunately, while you can practically brew an espresso with your smart phone these days, actually making a call on them is about as easy as driving downtown during rush hour…in Bangkok.

As I’m trying to type in the unlock code, I see that another man who turned around after we did and followed us back has just connected with the 911 operator and is giving directions.

I look over the man on the street wondering what to do. As I do so, another man comes running from around the corner and identifies himself as an off-duty policeman. He asks what happened and I explain what Connor has told me.

At this moment, a passing car stops and out jumps a young woman who states that she works at a nearby hospital. “Are you a nurse?” asks the cop.

“No. I’m a doctor,” replies the woman in a tone that clearly indicates she is tired of people making stereotypical assumptions about her role. She examines the man and asks for a detailed recounting of what happened. I bring Connor over and he explains.

She tries to talk to the injured man and he becomes momentarily conscious with a look of wide-eyed terror since understandably, he has no idea where he is, what has happened or why these strangers are hovering over him in the street. Then he lapses back into unconsciousness.

We decide to get him off the street, so the cop and I gently lift him and move him up onto the sidewalk. I’ve heard people say how heavy “dead weight” is, but I never appreciated that until today. I carefully use the hood of his jacket to pillow his head and avoid putting pressure on the half-dollar-size wound on the back of his skull caused by his falling.

A police car then arrives and the officer tells us an emergency medical team is on the way. As the fire engine and that team then pull up, I realize that my family and I are quickly transitioning from Good Samaritans into gawkers. I ask the doctor and the off-duty cop if there is anything more we can do. They say, “No,” so we walk away, praying that the man laying there is okay.

As we make our way back to our hotel, I consider two things.

First, if you’re ever planning on having a heart attack, stroke or seizure, try and get to Boston. It seems (from my very limited sampling) that there are more helpful, responsive emergency professionals in this location than in any concentrated place other than your local Dunkin’ Donuts.

Second, when did I become the cynical, jaded, fearful person who wanted to walk away and ignore this man? Despite being less than 24 hours after assisting Tony at the Boston train station and thus being attuned to reaching out, it took Connor’s pleading for us to turn around and go back to help.

Kris and I later discussed our initial reactions: it’s a scam or a person who is drunk or on drugs or a host of other rationalized scenarios that justify our walking on. But Connor’s insistence broke through such excuses and made me realize how cold and uncaring I’ve become. The world has enough desensitized cynics for whom “I don’t want to get involved” is the default mantra. I don’t want to go on living like that.

On this day, Connor did help save a life, but it wasn’t just that of the man who had the stroke or seizure. The life Connor truly helped to save – or at least nudge back in the right direction – was my own.

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Finding meaning in unlikely places

by Steve Brock on July 26, 2011

Of all the signs representing places where cruise ships in the Northeast sail, the most meaningful turned out to be Portland, ME, some place I’ve never visited…

Last month, my parents took my brother’s family and my family on a cruise that sailed from Boston and ended in Montreal.

My prayer before the trip was that it would be meaningful, something more than midnight buffets and tourist stops along the way.

Be careful what you pray for…

We get into Boston three days before the ship leaves. On our next to last day there, my family and I are on the T (Boston’s subway) heading back to our hotel. I overhear people giving an elderly man directions. A few minutes later, I look up and see that my youngest son, Connor, is repeating them to the man.

We get to our stop – the last one on this line – and my other son Sumner offers to carry the man’s roller bag as we exit. We ask where he’s headed. He has to find the train station and get a train to Portland, Maine.

We don’t know where the train station is either, but we follow some signs and ask some people and eventually find it. My wife, Kris, takes the kids back to the hotel. I offer to accompany the man on to the train station. He gratefully accepts.

We locate the ticket window but the guy tells us that the train to Portland is sold out. We have to go to another window. We do, and thankfully, there is a cancellation and a single ticket available. The guy at the ticket window requires photo ID. The old man only has his checkbook in his pocket. So I hold up his roller bag and help him dig through it for his wallet. He then buys the ticket.

I explain that his train will be announced in about 45 minutes but until then, we don’t know what track it will be. I point out the reader board that displays the departures then lead him over to the various numbered doors for each track.

He thanks me profusely for my help and offers to pay me. I decline and tell him just to help someone else sometime. I know I need to get back and meet up with Kris and the family, but I can sense that the gentleman is still unsure of the situation.

So I walk him into the waiting area and repeat the procedure pointing out that his destination will appear by the track number as confirmation when the track is announced. We go over this a few times. He again thanks me.

He then tells me his name is Tony. His son was supposed to have driven him home to Portland from Boston, but some work issue came up for his son necessitating the unfamiliar train trip for Tony. Tony is in his mid-eighties. He reaches into his pocket to show me a commemorative coin, but he has left it at home. The coin is from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Tony worked on the antennae used to track communications and the coin is his reminder of that event, his token of identity and purpose.

I tell him that I loved Apollo 11 because it landed on the moon on my birthday when I was a kid. Tony tells me I’m far too young to have been a kid then.

I like Tony.

We talk some more, but then I need to leave. I ask if he’s OK. He says he is, but we go over the process one more time.  

He then shakes my hand for probably the fourth time. I understand. That’s all he feels he has to give to me, that clasp of skin on skin, a gesture intended to convey the fullness of the gratitude he feels. I have been there before myself so I linger in his grip for what seems both longer than normal and just right.

He tells me again he wishes he could give me something but I tell him there’s no need. With nothing left to offer, he then looks at me and says, “God bless you.”

I respond, “God bless you too.”

“No,” he says, “I really mean it.”

“I mean it too,” I reply. “I helped today as a way of spreading God’s goodness in this world.”

He looks at me and neither of us speak for a while. I’m not sure we could. Eventually, he nods. I ask him for the last time if he’s OK. He assures me he is and thanks me once again, clearly trying to convey the depths of his gratitude.

What Tony doesn’t realize, however, is that he has already given me far more than I ever gave to him. It’s a backward equation but one familiar to anyone who has ever gone on say, a short-term missions trip. You go thinking you’ll bless others. But it always turns out you’re the one most deeply touched.

Thanks, Tony.

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