The plane accident the other day in New York where an obviously skilled pilot averted a major catastrophe, not only to the passengers in his charge, but to people on the ground in one of the most densely populated areas on the Earth, gave the media the opportunity to trot out two words that they love to pontificate with. Hero and Miracle. You hear them used quite often, with impunity and apparently without any thought to whether they are being used correctly (though the Christian Science Monitor, ironically, seems to have taken a sober approach to the subject). They reinforce in the listeners minds concepts that should be limited to extraordinary circumstances, but instead are blithely applied to some of the most mundane, commonplace experiences of human existence, in the process relegating the terms to the dustbin of nonsense. Let look at both words.
HERO n., pl. -roes.
- In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
- A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life: soldiers and nurses who were heroes in an unpopular war.
- A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine. See synonyms at celebrity.
The first definition doesn’t apply for obvious reasons. Neither does the second, though herein lies my objection, because using the definitions, the third probably does apply to the pilot of the plane, and perhaps the supporting personnel. Remember, I believe the word is overused, not used incorrectly.
The contention is that the pilot is a hero for doing what he did – maneuvering his plane into the Hudson River, with both engines shut down, in such a way that the plane didn’t dive into the river or sink, thereby preserving many lives. He purportedly is an experienced glider pilot, and it has been speculated that this experience assisted him. This may be true. I certainly have no intention of trying to diminish or take away from the pilot the glowing feeling he must have in handling the emergency to a successful conclusion. Any accolades he receives are richly deserved. My problem is one of semantics only.
It seems to me that when people hear the word hero, they think in terms of the second, not the third definition, and the way the press goes on and on with the word, that meaning is impressed into the minds of the listeners. They think of the pilot as one who has performed a feat of courage or nobility, or has risked or sacrificed his life to save others, when in fact, all he was doing was his job, a job he was trained for. He was tasked with transporting people safely from one destination to another. If they didn’t arrive safe, he failed. It’s that simple. He was simply doing his job. The fact that he did it so well, with an apparently successful conclusion against normal odds doesn’t in my mind make him a hero, in the sense of the second definition, and only qualifiedly so in the sense of the third. If he is a hero, then so is each and every commercial pilot who successfully lands his plane at his or her destination every day. Are they all heroes? Maybe to the people who fly in their planes, and to their families, but otherwise, no. They are simply competent human beings doing their job well.
The way the pilot has been described, I suspect he would agree with me. People who do their jobs well, not looking for praise, are usually humble about their accomplishments. He made sure he was the last person out of the plane, not the first, showing concern for his passengers and evidencing a sense of job accomplishment one usually sees in the humble. No, I doubt he’s comfortable with the word. He may have risen to the occasion and performed his job well, but that’s all he did, and credit goes not only to his singular talents, but also to those of the people who trained him, designed his plane and constructed it, not to mention the in-flight attendants. If he risked his life to save others, he did it when he first stepped onto the plane, not when he landed it safely. He was just as much a captive to the situation as the passengers. He just had a little more control over it.
To my mind, a better example of heroism would be the passengers who stormed the cockpit and attempted to retake United Airlines flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11. They were heroes because they risked, and ultimately sacrificed, their lives to save others in a situation they had no responsibility to try to resolve. They certainly met the second definition.
As you might expect from the author of this blog, the second word provokes more ire. Miracle is clearly a very overworked and overused word. We have taken to applying it to anything that amazes us, or seems out of the ordinary, from something as mundane as pictures of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, to the survival of someone of a catastrophe they should not have survived, and everything in between. Often it’s used to describe someone recovering from a deathly illness.
1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God: “Miracles are spontaneous, they cannot be summoned, but come of themselves” (Katherine Anne Porter).
2. One that excites admiring awe. See synonyms at wonder.
Again, the second definition is probably applicable, far more so than the first. The problem, again, is that when the media overuses the term, most people think of it in terms of the first. This in turn reinforces belief in the supernatural, one of the most prevailing beliefs in nonsense we are forced to endure in the world today. (See George W. Bush).
This was not a supernatural miracle, it was the result of human effort and human ingenuity solely. Give credit to the people who engineered and built the plane that allowed it to be flown the way it was, even when the engines are out of commission, and eventually float once in the water- all humans, no god involved. Give credit to the pilot, co-pilot and the flight attendants and the people who trained them along the way, passing on their knowledge and experience. Again, no gods involved. Give credit to the people on the ground and in boats who picked up passengers before the plane could sink, getting them swiftly out of harms way. No gods involved there either. Finally, give credit to the passengers themselves, who reacted quickly and efficiently, helping each other escape the plane after the landing.
In short, acknowledge the human effort and spirit involved in this simple episode, and avoid giving credit to something that doesn’t exist. Stop calling these event miracles, because they clearly are not. If they are miracles, why doesn’t the god responsible for them perform them more often, when other planes fail, or when other planes are flown into buildings, or simply when someone is trapped in a burning building.
If these examples of extraordinary human accomplishment are called miracles, we diminish the human component of the achievement, and reinforce a belief in – nonsense.