Helping ourselves

Meeting our responsibilities in this life

The name Chesley Sullenberger III needs little introduction. He was the heroic pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 who successfully landed his airliner in the Hudson River back in January 2008. As you recall, Flight 1549 had just taken off from La Guardia Airport in New York when it flew through a flock of geese, which disabled both engines of his craft. Being at low altitude and having no other alternative, Sullenberger lined up the plane and made an emergency landing on the icy Hudson, a water ditching being the most hazardous option in aviation. As it was, the plane remained upright and every passenger and crew member was safely rescued.

About a year later, Sullenberger was being interviewed by Katie Couric on CBS News. “Sully” as he is nicknamed, was taking her through the stages of the ordeal and was just about to set the airplane down in the river.

Couric interrupted to ask him, “Did you pray?”

Sully’s answer was immediate and decisive. “No,” he responded evenly, “I figured someone in the back of the cabin was taking care of that. My job was to fly the airplane.” He went on to describe how he did just that.

No pilot, professional or otherwise, would have trouble appreciating that answer. As pilots, we are trained to “fly the airplane” when encountering any emergency. As long as you are still in the air and conscious, there is always something you can do. It is a mindset instilled in every trainee the minute they get into the cockpit.

Others might think that Sully, a devout Methodist, was being irreverent or taking a swipe at religious faith. He was doing nothing of the sort. He knew that had he instead taken his hands off the wheel and prayed fervently to Jesus or God, everyone on Flight 1549 would now be dead.

And yes, there is a metaphor here.

God and religion are back in the news again. This is not surprising considering the fragile state of the world at the moment. It appears that the economic, political, social and environmental systems we’ve always taken for granted are in a state of free-fall. Therefore, it might not be surprising that the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) are experiencing an upsurge in fundamentalism lately. Their philosophies teach adherents to essentially ignore the physical world and concentrate instead on the heavenly one. At best, it suggests that moral behavior and reward in the afterlife are more important than mindlessly accumulating stuff and being overly concerned with earthly affairs. At worst, such thinking makes it easier to hate, abuse and even kill your fellow men and women without remorse.

Whatever the extreme, such a mindset makes it easier to avoid our responsibilities as conscious human beings who inhabit this earth for a reason. In short, we’ve forgotten that we need to fly the airplane. Or worse, have chosen not to.

Both individually and collectively, humanity seeks an outside source to come to our rescue whenever we seem helpless to do so ourselves. Individually, it is perhaps not surprising that a fair amount of people who become attracted to fundamentalist forms of religion were once alcoholics or drug addicts. For some, it gives them a ray of hope to improve their lives and obtain a worthy goal. For others, it’s just another crutch or excuse for not flying the airplane of their personal lives.

Collectively, crime, war, climate change and economic injustice seem so insurmountable that our current recourses of earthly remedy are deemed insufficient. Either Jesus or the ancient Mayans will deign to save us or those benevolent aliens will finally appear in their flying saucers and lend us a hand.

One could argue that divine intervention does exist and that the Gods of Valhalla were smiling on Sullenberger that cold winter day. Through no previous plan of his own, he managed to land in between the ferryboat route connecting the two sides of the Hudson. Thus, there were boats nearby that could come to his immediate aid

Such a Deus ex Machina is only part of the process, however.

Horror-writer (and Red Sox fan), Stephen King once wrote that it is the nature of God to come on in the bottom of the ninth inning. What he meant, of course, is that we have to pitch the previous eight, as challenging as they might be. If we give it our all, God will give us that extra push at the end. It’s a variation of the accurate aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Sullenberger did indeed help himself that day but went a step further. After landing, Sullenberger walked through the rapidly flooding cabin twice to make sure his passengers were out and safe.

His example holds value for us. If we are going to save ourselves, we have to take the wheel, summon our resolve and, like him, fly the airplane.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County since 1970 as an artist, writer, amateur historian, and photographer. He is a frequent contributor to The Recorder and welcomes feedback at

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