The past two weeks have been hard ones for America (as well as Mexico and the Caribbean). We have been pounded by two monster hurricanes, and we just had the 16th anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11. I would never wish harm on anyone, but sometimes it takes a tragedy for us to realize (or remember) how resilient people can be. Whether done from survival instinct, fear or love, I am constantly amazed how ordinary people often do extraordinary things. And these past two weeks saw many examples of that.
If you are like me, you remember clearly where you were and what you were doing when you first heard the horrible news of the events of 9/11. I often still think about a fighter pilot, stationed in the Boston area, who was one of the first to be scrambled in response to the attacks on the twin towers. His job was to take out any other aircraft that might be a threat to America. He was up to the task. The only problem was the fighter had to take off before his plane could be armed. In other words, if he encountered an enemy plane (hijacked or otherwise), the only weapon he had was his own plane, which he would use as a self-guided missile to take down the enemy, thus giving up his own life to prevent the loss of many others. Fortunately, he didn’t have to make that suicide run, but he would have done it if he needed to. I wonder if I would have had the courage to do the same.
We have heard many stories about the courage of first responders: those firefighters, police and others who run toward the dangers the rest of us are fleeing from. Again, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The movie, World Trade Center,[i] pays homage to the courage and dedication of the first responders to the attacks on 9/11 – 412 of whom died in trying to rescue others. While the movie focuses on Port Authority officers, the attitude and commitment of almost all first responders are similar to what we see in this clip:
These dedicated officers didn’t really understand what had just happened, and they realized saving anyone that high up in the towers was unlikely, but they had to try, regardless of the odds or the dangers to themselves.
We have come to expect the extraordinary from our first responders and military. But extraordinary courage and commitment are not limited to them. United 93[ii] tells the story of the passengers of United Flight 93, the fourth plane that was hijacked by terrorists on 9/11. We don’t know the exact destination of this hijacked plane, but it appears to have been another target in Washington, DC, perhaps even the White House. By using their cellphones, the passengers figured out what was going on and realized their fate. Determined to stop these hijackers, the passengers decided to change the course of history beginning with these now-immortal words, “Let’s roll.” While we don’t know exactly what happened at the end of the flight, here is the filmmakers’ take on it:
Everyday people became extraordinary heroes, giving their lives so others could continue theirs. Perhaps the bravery of these passengers saved the life of that Boston pilot.
First responders continued to do extraordinary things in Houston during the rain (pun intended) of terror of Hurricane Harvey. By the end of the fifth day after Harvey hit Houston, almost 52 inches of rain had fallen. In that same period, Houston’s first responders and the Coast Guard had saved over 3,500 people and 300 animals. There were 9,100 refugees at the George R. Brown convention center. But the first responders were overwhelmed. During Harvey, 911 operators received over 700 calls a day. A normal day would rarely see more than 14. But as often happens when tragedy strikes, ordinary people stepped up. We witnessed many examples of everyday heroes in Houston, where ordinary people gave extraordinary service to their families, neighbors, and often total strangers. These ordinary people doing extraordinary things never considered race, religion, political affiliation, economic class or any other way we often categorize or label each other. I was constantly moved to tears when I learned of these simple, yet extraordinary things:
- People standing in line, city blocks long, not for water, food, shelter or other handouts, but to volunteer to help with the rescue and relief efforts.
- People breaking into song at shelters, or playing the piano in knee-deep water, to lift others’ spirits.
- Bakers, trapped in their bakery, baking over a thousand loaves of Mexican bread to donate to flood victims.
- Neighbors creating human chains to help each other through the cascading currents of the flood waters.
- The Texas and Louisiana “navies,” using their personal flat-bottom boats, personal water craft, canoes and kayaks, to rescue hundreds of those trapped by the floods. A reporter asked a boat owner, launching his boat from a freeway exit ramp, what he intended to do. “Save some lives,” he nonchalantly answered, as if driving your boat down city streets was a normal, everyday occurrence. And saving lives is what they did.
Tragedy is often the catalyst to make bad people good and good people better. Oskar Schindler was not a particularly good person before World War II. He was an opportunistic industrialist who was primarily motivated by profit. But the war somehow changed him. Through initiative and dedication, he is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. As illustrated by the movie, Schindler’s List,[iii] at the end of the war, he had only one regret:
During World War II, like Oskar Schlinder, many ordinary people did extraordinary things to help save lives, as this clip from The Zookeeper’s Wife[iv] illustrates (notice how many people are involved – people that we never hear much about if anything at all):
No one should hope for tragedy, but unfortunately it comes to all of us. It might not be a monumental hurricane or earthquake, a world war or other titanic event. But in everyone’s life, some rain must fall; we all must deal with something. How do we react when bad things happen? As Holocaust survivor, Vicktor Frankl, said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” the movie, Forrest Gump[v] taught us that shit happens. But it also taught us we can still find beauty in the middle of it, in this, my favorite scene from the movie:
There is no one more normal that Forrest Gump, but boy did he do extraordinary things. Thanks to the people of Houston, Florida, and other areas who also have done extraordinary things, and led us by their example of love and caring. My hope is that we can avoid tragedy in our lives. But being somewhat of a realist, my bigger hope is that each of us can somehow make it through the hard times we face, whether it be the loss of personal possessions, a job, or a loved one, or the loss of a “normal” life due to injury or illness. My biggest hope, though, is that we find hope, beauty and peace in the middle of our personal tragedies, and the awareness, love and concern to help others get through their own, for we never know when we might be the answer to someone else’s prayer.
[i] World Trade Center
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Double Feature Films, Intermedia Films
- Director: Oliver Stone
- Screenwriters: Andrea Berloff and John McLoughlin
- Starring: Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena
- Release date: August 9, 2006
[ii] United 93
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, StudioCanal, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
- Director: Paul Greengrass
- Screenwriter: Paul Greengrass
- Starring: David Alan Basche, Olivia Thirlby and Liza Colon-Zayas
- Release date: April 28, 2006
[iii] Schindler’s List
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian based on the book by Thomas Keneally
- Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley
- Release date: February 4, 1994
[iv] The Zookeeper’s Wife
- Production Company: Scion Films, Czech Anglo Productions, LD Entertainment
- Director: Niki Caro
- Screenwriter: Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman
- Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Bruhl
- Release date: April 7, 2017
[v] Forrest Gump
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- Screenwriter: Eric Roth based on the book by Winston Groom
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise
- Release date: July 6, 1994