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Years ago, I took my youngest daughter, Julie, to Alaska to celebrate her graduation from elementary school. We visited Iditarod Headquarters, near Anchorage, where the iconic sled dog race begins each year. While there, we approached a beautiful dog team harnessed to a sled on wheels, giving rides to tourists on that warm June day. With the trainer’s permission, we hugged each dog until we approached the dog at the front of the pack. “No, wait,” he shouted. “You can’t approach him. He’ll kill you.” We froze and turned to face the lead dog, sitting off by himself. He wasn’t the largest animal there, and I wondered if the trainer was just being dramatic. Then, he slowly turned and faced us. I will never forget the fierce look in his eyes. He truly did look like he’d kill us if we took one more step. I grabbed Julie and we quietly backed away. The trainer then patiently explained how a lead dog is selected shortly after birth, because of his pedigree and personality, and trained to lead the others. Genetics suit him or her for this role. Lead dogs are simply wired differently than other animals. Both dogs and handlers recognize their authority and ability without question, and they’re always given the respect that they deserve.
I’ve thought back on that moment over the years, whenever I’ve met a “lead dog” among the emergency responders and aid workers we serve. There aren’t many, and you know when you’re with one. They are different from others on the team in ways that are hard to describe. They seem more quietly confident and self-assured, with an “aloofness” that may reflect less need for intimacy and attachment. Sometimes they have greater stamina, calmer nerves, and more “certainty” about who they are than the norm. They sometimes seem more resilient, regardless of circumstance or surroundings. They are laser-focused on their mission, and they expect to be successful. Recent brain research suggests that their mind and body may actually react to stress differently than the rest of us. Their apparent calmness is genuine and seems hard-wired. Now, here’s something especially interesting. Our own research hints that they may also be more “spiritual” than the norm, experiencing each moment as part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of transcendence gives meaning that is independent of immediate outcomes, giving a sense of purpose and an experience of safety that may reduce stress and promotes resilience. While these findings are preliminary, they are very interesting.
This has led me to wonder - if the lead dogs among us benefit from an experience of meaning and purpose greater than themselves, would it be helpful for the rest of us to nurture our own personal spirituality? In whatever way we experience the “divine,” knowing that we’re a part of something bigger may help us avoid thinking we need to control every critical situation. Maybe, just like the “lead dogs” who are sometimes quite spiritual, it may be important to experience ourselves as part of a much larger force working to promote good in the world. Knowing our role, adequately training and preparing for future challenges, and working effectively together with others on the team may be easier when we feel a deep sense of purpose and meaning grounded in something bigger than ourselves.
What do you think?
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