Anyone looking for a takeaway lesson from the amazing tale of US Airways Flight 1549 would do well to ponder the striking opening line of an Associated Press piece on the episode: “Chesley Sullenberger spent practically his whole life preparing for the five-minute crucible that was US Airways Flight 1549.”
The article goes on to relate that the story’s hero got his pilot’s license at 14 and was named best aviator in his class at the Air Force Academy. He then embarked on a 29-year airline piloting career, mastering glider flying along the way, and had studied air disasters, even starting a firm that taught companies to apply to other fields the latest safety advances in commercial aviation.
But “Sully” hadn’t just gained, through decades of experience and study, the technical expertise that he needed, when the unthinkable happened, to skirt numerous potential calamities and land that plane safely in the Hudson. With a degree in psychology from the Air Force Academy, he had actually studied how airline crews react in crises precisely like the one in which he found himself on the afternoon of January 15, 2009.
Only that kind of serious premeditation could have led to the astonishing calm the pilot displayed at the moment of truth, when, seconds before the plane hit the water, he came on the intercom and said three of the most frightful words one could ever hear: “Brace for impact.” Mark Hood, a passenger on the fateful flight, said that Sullenberger intoned those words “in a calm, cool, controlled voice. It was a testament to leadership. Had he let any tension leak into his voice, it would have been magnified in the passengers.”
But there’s more. The fact that the pilot had spent time studying his own behavior, as it were, in this very situation, was crucial to the safe landing itself. As William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, put it, the “raw piloting is commendable, but what’s truly extraordinary is the rapid and professional way the crew went about making these decisions. You’ve only got seconds to sort these things out…” But, of course, Captain Sullenberger had much more than seconds to decide how and when to act — he’d had years of study, forethought and reflection.
And that’s why his story, with its magically happy ending, is no mere one-in-a-million fairytale with no practical relevance for us. Although it’s extremely unlikely Mr. Sullenberger, a good Texan man, has heard of the Mesillas Yesharim or names like Kelm and Novarodok, the story of Flight 1549 is a textbook metaphor for a seminal teaching of Mussar: that the goal of character improvement is not only to enable us to be the best human beings we can be in our everyday lives, but also — or, perhaps, especially — so that when hard times, even catastrophes, strike, we retain that humanity, even as, about us, others forfeit theirs.
Living within a society of such low ethical expectations that “live and let live” is the byword and “not hurting anyone” is the standard to strive for, it’s easy to absorb the subtle notion that possessing refined middos is equated with being a nice guy with lots of friends. But anyone who has ever imbibed the written or verbal teachings of the masters of Mussar knows how woefully superficial an equation that is.
The work of becoming truly human, of refining our character and deepening our sensitivity to others, to ourselves, to life itself, is incremental, painstaking and a project requiring an unshakable lifelong commitment. Someone who has done little to uproot from the soil of his personality the negative traits that, from childhood on, grow wild like so many weeds, can get by quite well for a long time as a “nice guy with lots of friends” — although, more likely than not, his spouse and children are rather underwhelmed. By the same token, someone who has been engaged in the hard work of step-by-tiny-step improvement of his middos might not always palpably sense his progress in his quotidian dealings with others, although again, there’s at least one person in his life who probably does.
But then there are the times in life, and they are inevitable, when the going gets rough. It might be something as commonplace as financial hard times or illness, or as unexpected as, say, the aircraft you’re piloting running “afowl” midair of a flock of geese, resulting in an unscheduled and much-too-close-for-comfort tour of New York City’s attractions. Those are the proverbial “times that try men’s souls,” and those who will issue the verdict on just how successful that program
of character development has been will be the jury of one’s peers, with the role of foreman filled by one’s spouse and family. And since, as Rav Chaim Vital writes, a person’s ultimate fate in the World to Come depends greatly on how he treated his spouse, one ought not pin his hopes on having that jury verdict overturned on appeal to a Higher Court.
And then there are the times of true catastrophe. Living in the comfort of this country and our times, it’s hard for many of us,
who have been fortunate, bli ayin hara, to be spared serious illness and other calamity in our own lives, to imagine what it means to live in desperate circumstances not merely for 20 frightful minutes over the New York skyline, but day after day in places like the Nazi lager or the frigid wastelands of Siberia. Those places were laboratories of the human soul, and it is there that decades of toil on becoming the best human one could be came to fruition.
The test results? A well-known secular writer who went through the camps wrote thus: “In the camps, there were kapos of German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovakian, Georgian, Ukrainian, French, and Lithuanian extraction.They were Christians, Jews and atheists. Former professors, industrialists, artists, merchants, workers, militants from the right and the left, philosophers and explorers of the soul, Marxists and staunch humanists. And, of course, a few common criminals. But not one kapo had been a rabbi.”
Yet, there were also countless others, “simple” Jews, whose deep humanity shone forth there with a gleam that probably amazed everyone around them. Everyone but their families.