Sully, the latest film from director Clint Eastwood, stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and depicts the miraculous landing of his disabled passenger jet on the Hudson River back in January of 2009. One hundred and fifty souls were on board that ill-fated flight, and Sully, along with co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and the crew, saved every one of them from near certain death after a flock of birds flew into both engines, disabling the plane just three minutes after take-off.
While that unprecedented water landing serves as the focal point of the film, much of the movie’s tight hour and a half runtime is spent portraying the trials Sully faced after everyone was safely back on dry land. The pilot is plagued by recurring visions of how things might have gone differently as he stares out across New York’s sky-line, only to see his plane crashing into buildings and homes. It’s impossible to see the movie and not think of the 9/11 tragedy that previously rocked the metropolis, especially as we remembered the 15 year anniversary of that horrific attack earlier this week.
Sully’s nightmares are exacerbated by the National Transportation Safety Board’s inquiry, in which the panel of experts often seem more determined to find someone to blame than the truth of what actually happened following the accident. As IGN‘s Simon Thompson noted, the depiction of the panel is, in many ways, Eastwood “holding a mirror up and asking why we can’t resist tearing down the ones we should be holding up, the ones whose actions give us hope.” It’s a question that deserves further reflection.
Perhaps part of the reason is that we are simply too aware of our own fallen state to accept the valor and greatness of others without also looking for some darker side to the story. That we have all fallen away from the image in which we were created is a fundamental part of the human experience (Romans 3:23), and that often leaves us waiting for the other shoe to drop when a person or moment seems too good to be true. While we want to believe that there can be genuine greatness in this life and delight in the moments that remind us that we still retain some spark of that purity with which we were crafted, it often seems preferable to guard against the possibility of being let down by those people we lift up than to embrace and celebrate their accomplishments. So, like the NTSB panel in Sully, we search and search for an explanation that better takes into account the flaws we expect to find, even if it means diminishing the accomplishments of others.
The other reason I believe we tend to look for ways to tear down those we should otherwise hold up is that doing so makes us feel better about our own mistakes. While the greatness of others can remind us what we are capable of accomplishing, it also shines a light on all the times we have fallen short of those ideals. It’s often far easier to focus on the flaws of others than to ask God to help us fix our own. The Lord often uses the accomplishments of others, whether they’re Christians or not, to remind us of what he has called us to be. In those moments, we are faced with the choice of either re-committing to his standard for our lives or knowingly rejecting that purpose. If, however, we can artificially lower that standard by tearing others down, it becomes easier to accept where we are and simply go on with our lives.
The common thread in both of the explanations described above is the choice we face when reminded of the gap between who we are capable of being in Christ and who we often are when living in our strength rather than his. As a result, the solution to the degradation of others’ accomplishments has little to do with them. Rather, if we want to be able to not only embrace, but also celebrate the greatness of others, we must first commit to measuring ourselves against the example of Christ rather than other people. By shifting the standard to someone in whom no flaw or shortcoming can be found, we remove the temptation to look for ways to escape the conviction we feel when others accomplish something great.
As Christians, we serve a God who knows our every flaw and still calls us to rejoice with others in their moments of triumph (Romans 12:15). We should be known as a people who celebrate the achievements of others and delight in all that God does through them. However, that has to start with the standards against which we measure ourselves.
So the next time you witness another person’s accomplishment, take a second to gauge your initial reaction. Your first thoughts in those moments will reveal a great deal about the state of your heart. Will you join the Lord in celebration or the masses in looking for some deeper flaw? For the Christian, there’s really only one correct answer to that question.