The Spirit of Service as a Path to Meaning

Global Meaning Institute, used with permission
Source: Global Meaning Institute, used with permission

It has been 10 years since what’s been called the “Miracle on the Hudson” made front page headlines and inspired millions of people around the world. On Thursday, January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River minutes after takeoff from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. After being crippled by a collision with a flock of birds, the plane carrying 155 passengers went down literally just feet from the Manhattan skyline. Miraculously, all passengers and crewmembers survived.

While commercial jet crashes, fortunately, are rare, surviving a major airline accident like what happened with US Airways Flight 1549 is even rarer. Luck and good fortune were obviously at work in this particular case. So was the unquestioned expertise of the pilot, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, who rightly so became a national hero, co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, and their crew for how they handled the abrupt and unusual landing and evacuation. There also was the expertise displayed by those who quickly came to the victims’ rescue via nearby Coast Guard vessels, tour boats, and commuter ferries.   

To be sure, this was an unforgettable, life-and-death experience like no other. And the level of expertise and professional readiness of everyone involved in the entire rescue effort cannot be overlooked or minimized. This said, the real-life drama of and lessons learned from US Airways Flight 1549 go well beyond strict professionalism and first responder experience per se.

The actions that began with Captain Sullenberger and his crew, and that continued with everyone, including passengers, who played a part in ensuring that all people safely departed the plane and were rescued, signal and underscore that something else was at work too. And although this something else may be viewed as part of the “Miracle” that unfolded on the Hudson, I submit that it is also a manifestation of something more practical and realisticthe elevation of the human spirit at work in the service of others.

Think about it for a minute, a potential catastrophe (and loss of human life) was averted on the Hudson River by the actions of people caring for and helping other people in need, even at the risk of their own safety and welfare. And over and over again, from the plight of US Airways Flight 1549, we heard stories of civility and heroism that went well beyond the “call of duty.”

As the aircraft began to sink in the Hudson River’s frigid gray current, witnesses described a scene of levelheaded “teamwork” to evacuate the weak and injured, including an infant and an elderly woman in a wheel chair. Moreover, as passengers scrambled for the exits, they did so in as calm a way as humanly possible under the circumstances, even carrying the helpless and forsaking their own fear so that everyone filed quickly and safely through the exit doors and out onto the wings and the emergency chutes. And all this was accomplished under extremely harsh conditions, since most passengers were not properly dressed for the occasion and fled without their life jackets. A few even fell into 36-degree water, which meant that they would not be able to last long in the cold due to hypothermia.

However, fellow passengers, who effectively were strangers, displayed unselfish acts of courage by being willing to risk their own lives to fish their fallen comrades out of the water! And I’m not yet talking about the bravery exhibited by the plane’s pilot and crew, or the first responders and other emergency personnel who came to the aid of the stranded passengers! No, once again, I’m talking about ordinary people helping other ordinary people under circumstances that simply boggle the mind.

I read about one passenger, for example, who, although soaked and shivering from having been in the river, turned her attention to a fellow passenger who had suffered a deep gash in her leg and was bleeding heavily. With the obvious propensity for chaos all around her, this truly “volunteer” aid worker observed that the most amazing thing was that she saw no pushing, no shoving; only help and compassion. Now how is this for a practical example of the spirit of service?

The rescue of US Airways Flight 1549 demonstrated without doubt that there was no shortage of heroes on the Hudson that fateful day. Captain Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot, went up and down the listing, drifting craft—twice—to make sure that everyone got out before he did the same. And those aboard the Coast Guard vessels, tour boats, and commuter ferries worked hard and fast to rescue the people from the jetliner, even giving them their gloves, jackets, and coats for warmth and to prevent hypothermia. A couple of New City police detectives selflessly entered the plane to rescue some passengers who were still inside, while their police scuba diver colleagues dropped from a helicopter high above to pull some passengers from the icy cold water. If the accident itself was hard to imagine, again, so was the result: Besides one victim with two broken legs, there were no other reports of serious injuries and all 155 people on board were pulled to safety.

Yes, be realistic and expect miracles! By relating and being directed to something more than yourself, it is possible (and realistic) to manifest the human spirit at work and, as the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl would say, turn an apparently meaningless suffering into a genuine human achievement. This is what occurred on the Hudson River, when human beings demonstrated that they can—and will—rise above their predicament even against the odds. Moreover, the capacity to “extend beyond yourself,” referred to as self-transcendence in Dr. Frankl’s meaning-focused system of psychotherapy, called Logotherapy, is another one of our unique traits as human beings and is the essence of our human-ness.

When we work directly for the good of others, that is, when we engage in the “spirit of service,” meaning deepens in ways that reward us beyond measure. Whenever we go beyond satisfying our own personal needs, we enter the realm of what Frankl called “ultimate meaning.” Some call it connection to a higher self, to God, to our own spirit, to universal consciousness, to love, to the collective good.

No matter what it’s called, it is deep meaning and it transforms our lives. In this connection, I’m sure that everyone associated with the “Miracle on the Hudson,” even many of us who observed it from afar, discovered deep meaning from such an extraordinary experience.

Giving beyond ourselves makes our own lives richer.
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