Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #019. First published in the St. Cloud Times Feb. 24, 2009

“I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level … the nose slightly up ... at a descent rate that was survivable … just above our minimum flying speed but not below it. And I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously.”

Three and a half minutes, and all in a day’s work for Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger as he described it to Katie Couric on the Feb. 8 “60 Minutes.”

Concentrated in that one event — the Jan. 15 landing of USAirways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River and the survival of all 155 people on board — are so many elements of our life together that we will be taking our bearings from it for years to come.

Sullenberger’s remarks, and those of his crew, were riveting in large part because they were so understated, so matter-of-fact. As I listened, mesmerized, I realized that Flight 1549 is not only inspirational but instructive.

First, we should always honor expertise, which is not necessarily the same as confidence. Sully could honestly, and without bragging, say “I was sure I could do it,” because “my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.”

I’m all in favor of prayer, but had I been on that plane I’d have hoped the pilot wasn’t praying, and Sully said he wasn’t: “My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing. I thought of nothing else.” Because he was thinking of nothing else, he managed “to make all these things happen simultaneously.” Next time you think you know more about education than your child’s teacher, who has the expertise to make lots of things happen simultaneously, remember Sully.

Second, leadership and teamwork are two sides of the same coin. Once the captain made the “brace for impact” statement, he heard the flight attendants shouting their response: “Heads down. Stay down.” “I felt very comforted by that. I knew immediately that they were on the same page. That if I could land the airplane, that they could get them out safely.” You don’t want a slash-and-burn “leader” like Donald Trump in the pilot’s seat.

Third, hospitality comes naturally in crisis, so why can’t it be normal operating procedure in less trying circumstances? One reason everybody survived the crash is that no one tried to be the only survivor. Nobody was “voted off the island.”

According to a passenger, Gerry McNamara, “There was some panic — people jumping over seats and running toward the doors, but we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down. … Everyone worked together — teamed up and in groups to figure out how to help each other. … I witnessed the best of humanity that day.”

And hospitality wasn’t just on the plane. Boats, including Hudson River ferries that are not designed for rescue, showed up almost instantaneously.

Fourth, everybody is finally connected to everybody else, no story is isolated. One of the survivors had lost a brother, a firefighter, in the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

In a particularly poignant “60 Minutes” moment, Sully and his wife read their favorite letter, from someone whose 84-year-old father had called from his apartment house in Manhattan to say that the plane could have hit a building like his and killed thousands. “As a Holocaust survivor my father taught me that to save a life is to save a world, as you never know what the person you’ve saved or his or her progeny will go on to contribute to the peace and healing of the world.”

Flight 1549 is about the renewal of human community. Expertise is to be valued, not distrusted. Leaders are servants, not bullies. We all do better when we all do better. And we’re all part of the same story.

The day after the interview I watched “24,” as I always do, fascinated by Jack Bauer’s exploits — and alarmed by my fascination. At the crossroads of hope and fear I need to remember that 1549 is the address of our real world and 24 is fantasy.

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