The crash of flight 1549 into the icy waters of the Hudson and the miraculous survival of all on board is a story for the ages. The skill of the cool-headed pilot, the quick action of the flight attendants, the timely rescue by ferry boat crews will pass into history as real-life examples of grace under pressure.
But as I listen to the accounts of that January afternoon, it seems to me that the true miracle can be summed up in one hyphenated, slightly archaic word: self-control.
It’s a concept that has teetered at the edge of extinction for some time now, threatened by trendier ideas like self-realization and self-esteem. My own generation, coming of age in the ’60s, rejected the repressive notion that feelings and emotions must sometimes be kept in check to serve the greater good. It took a long time for the pendulum to swing back towards a sane middle, a place where common sense and common courtesy modify instinct. Sometimes, reading accounts of road rage or other unbridled acts of impulse, I wonder if we’re there yet.
For the 150 passengers on the plane, self-control equaled survival. As one young woman succinctly put it, “panic was not going to save my life.” The orderly evacuation depended on calm; and by all accounts, calm prevailed. Waist-high in freezing water, terrified people put aside their personal fears and returned to the cardinal rules of grade school fire drills. They kept quiet and followed directions. It worked.
Watching them huddle on the wings of the downed plane and then, swathed in blankets and jackets from the ferry crews, make their way to safety, I wondered about the varied paths that led each passenger to this moment. They were ordinary men and women, young and old, hardy and frail, en route to business meetings or heading home. Yet each carried with them that day the sum of thousands of other days, thousands of choices, trivial and momentous. Courage does not spring full grown from the brow of disaster. It has been growing, stretching its muscles, in the daily acceptance of duty. Every act of selflessness, every instant of delayed gratification may be the preparation for a single, defining test.
In his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, author John Irving builds the seemingly random events of the central character’s history into an explosive, final moment of valor. I thought of that book as I watched the footage of the crash and rescue. There were, of course, elements of the flight 1549 story that were anything but random. The pilot was a safety expert with decades of experience. One could argue that he spent his career preparing for just such an event, and that he was ready.
As for the others on board, the preparation was less deliberate. We are each on a journey, a wise monk once told me. Everything we do is for the journey. And though we can predict many things here in the technology driven, highly evolved 21st century—weather, health risks, a host of other probable outcomes—none of us knows for certain what may be required of us today.
So we look at the pictures and watch the video and shake our heads in wonder. It’s a miracle, we say again. How lucky they were.
We know not the day nor the hour of our test, but we know this day, this hour. The heroism of tomorrow may well lie in the discipline of the present, the self-control that carries us through the myriad indignities and annoyances of daily life. For me, that is the mystery, and the miracle: that an ordinary, stolid Thursday might contain the saving grace that will redeem us at the moment of peril.