What makes a hero, a hero…heroic? After a recent trip to my local theater to see the new Clint Eastwood directed movie “Sully”, starring Tom Hanks, I may just have to rethink my answer to that question.
The film tells the story of “The Miracle on the Hudson”. On a frigid January morning in 2009, USAir Flight 1549, with 155 souls on board, was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. The aircraft was brought down by the most extraordinary of circumstances: a bird strike, resulting in both of the plane’s engines flaming out and stalling. In the 208 excruciating seconds after the accident (less than four minutes), Captain Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”), and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles somehow safely brought the plane down for a water landing.
The miracle, of course, is that all 155 passengers and crew walked away from that disaster, alive. Not one person lost. Not one major injury or casualty. Every one survived because two ordinary people did their jobs, acted extraordinarily, in a moment when any panic, any mistake, any slip up, any hesitation could have resulted in death for some, many, even most of the people on that plane.
In watching the movie and remembering that story again, what most impressed me was how very ordinary Sully was: in how he is portrayed in the movie, and still is, in real life, almost eight years after that amazing day. Sully doesn’t look the part of hero, at least not like the heroes and heroines our culture so loves to lionize, idolize, and worship. He’s not a muscle bound athlete or an over coiffed pop singer. No: this hero is tall and thin and white haired, and sports a decidedly unfashionable eighties mustache. Sully could easily pass for an insurance salesman, or a bank manager, or the low key neighbor next door who lends you his lawnmower.
His act of heroism isn’t the stuff of cliché drama either: no overheated swashbuckling exploits or over the top dramatic speeches to save the day. As the incident unfolds, with everything hanging in the balance, he’s cool and calm: giving orders in a steady voice, making multiple decisions, one right after the other, following procedure. After the plane splashes down, he wades through the plane’s interior as it slowly fills up with icy water, making sure that every last person is evacuated safely, no one left behind. Only then does he save himself.
Strange how we as a world have come to think of our heroes, the ones who inevitably grab the headlines, fill up the twitter feeds, and dominate our cultural conversation. Now a hero is the politician who struts and blusters across the stage, clothed in the language of shameless self promotion, and all against a backdrop of red, white and blue. Or a hero is the sports icon who hits a ball or makes a touchdown and then flips his bat or spikes the ball to make sure that every one in the stadium knows just how awesome he is. We deify the business titan who makes hundreds of millions of dollars in the bare knuckled game called capitalism, the singer who tops the charts.
But to me a hero is someone more like Sully. An everyday often anonymous person who summons the strength and courage and character to do the right thing when life demands it. Not for adulation or economic gain but because this is their job, their call. Like my friend who for more than twenty years has faithfully and lovingly cared for his spouse, who suffers from a chronic, debilitating disease. With grace and tenderness he cares for her, day in and day out. Or the neighbor I know who visits a nearby women’s prison every single week and tutors the inmates, helps them prepare for life on the outside. Her “pay” comes in the satisfaction of helping someone in need.
Heroes like this actually abound in our world. We just have to look for them, beyond the spotlight, beyond the warped and weird ways we so often define heroism. Real heroes do the right thing because their faith in God compels them; because they could do no other; because they have decided to use their one God given life in the service of others and not just to serve themselves alone.
Real heroes have a job and then just do their jobs.
As Sully wrote in his autobiography “Highest Duty”, “Everyone's reputation is made on a daily basis. There are little incremental things - worthwhile efforts, moment you were helpful to others - and after a life time, they add up to something. You can feel as if you lived and it mattered."
So here’s to the Sullys, the real heroes and heroines in our world. And who knows? Maybe you or I: we can be heroes too.