Those of us forty or over remember watching the "Disaster Movies" popular in the seventies. The underlying themes of these movies was: "Disasters show the selfish, panicky, animal underbelly of humanity." Crowds of people would run screaming, trampling the young and elderly in their blind efforts to "Look out for Number One." The Fat, Stupid, Greedy American crowds, we were told, would be the first to demonstrate the pathetic and base nature that was hiding just under the fake plastic surface of civility.
Those movies are, thankfully, a thing of the past. They reflected a version of reality that has not been supported by the examples of human nature under stress we have been witness to since. While 9/11 unfolded we did not see stampeding crowds clawing at each other to save their own skins - we saw people helping each other. When the Eastern Seaboard went dark during the Blackout the people stopping to direct traffic outnumbered those who stopped to loot stores.
On Thursday, as flight 1549 glided powerless into the Hudson the 911 switchboard lit up with people on shore calling for help for those onboard before the plane even hit the water. Water taxi and ferry captains turned their boats to the scene before the paid rescue personnel of the city had a chance to untie their craft from the piers. Passengers aboard the ferries manned the sides and pulled the victims aboard.
Onboard the plane itself, passengers helped each other out onto the wings and the rafts. Passengers on the wings went back inside the sinking plane and splashed to the rafts in the front to make room for others on the wings.
The response to this incident is educational. People are talking about how uplifting the accident has been for them. Everyone survived, so there is no grief to deal with. Instead, the accident has given us an opportunity to see again the common decency that dwells inside us all.
Hope has not been Hip for most of my life. Cynicism has been the popular attitude. Wry, sarcastic comments condemning the species and the culture we are all part of have been the theme songs that set the tone. Learned dissertations on the weaknesses and failures of my fellows have been the cultural texts of my youth and at times they succeeded in convincing me that I was part of a selfish species, a victim and a perpetrator of a hard and uncaring society. None of that cynicism has ever led to a positive result.
For many reasons, not least or most the election of Barack Obama, we find ourselves facing an era where lessons of hope can replace lessons of despair. Lessons of hope can inspire, can motivate, can lead to improvements in our world. Our ability to succeed in our efforts will be tied to our ability to believe in ourselves.
As flight 1549 sank into the Hudson River, the human spirit soared.